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2011 Big Sky position rankings: Running backs
If the Big Sky Conference is predominantly a passing league, don’t tell these guys. Indeed, the Big Sky has churned out some really good running backs in the last few years, and the 2011 season looks like it’ll provide another good crop.
NOTE: This is the second installment of a nine-part series in which we project the Top 10 players at each position in advance of the 2011 Big Sky Conference football season – summer transfers be damned!
Just imagine if Taiwan Jones and Bo Bolen had been in the mix. But Jones, the league’s most dynamic rusher, chose to forego his senior year and was drafted in the fourth round of last month’s draft by the Raiders.
Bolen, meanwhile, has embarked on a two-year LDS mission. The league also said goodbye to an all-time great in Montana’s Chase Reynolds, who graduated just a few yards shy of setting the Grizzlies’ rushing record.
Regardless, a strong mix of speed, power and experience highlights this year’s group.
TOP 10 RUNNING BACKS
1 - Cory McCaffrey, Sr., Portland State
Comment: Emerged to finish second in the league in rushing.
2 - Orenzo Davis, Sr., Montana State
Comment: As important a player as the Bobcats had last season.
3 - Zach Bauman, Soph., Northern Arizona
Comment: Got 1,000 yards and scored 14 TDs as a true frosh.
4 - Bryan Hilliard, Sr., Sacramento State
Comment: A veteran leader in one of league’s best offenses.
5 - Peter Nguyen, Jr., Montana
Comment: Breakaway threat ready for big year in spread offense.
6 - Mario Brown, Soph., Eastern Washington
Comment: Filled Taiwan Jones’ shoes nicely during title run.
7 - Josh Booker, Soph., Weber State
Comment: Up-and-comer looks to be the next star in Ogden.
8- Giovannie Dixon, Jr., Northern Arizona
Comment: More than just a No. 2 option for the Lumberjacks.
9- Tray Robinson, Jr., Montana State
Comment: Nebraska transfer gives MSU ground game a boost.
10 - Demitrius Bronson, Jr., Eastern Washington
Comment: Wasington dropdown should get his share of carries.
Cory McCaffrey was converted to play wide receiver under Jerry Glanville. But when new coach Nigel Burton arrived, he switched McCaffrey back to the position at which he starred in high school. Good call. McCaffrey, at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, is one of the smaller runners in the Big Sky. Still, he racked up 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns in the Vikings’ Pistol offense last season. McCaffrey ranked second in the league to Taiwan Jones in several categories. And that’s something every back in the Big Sky would hang their hat on.
A summer arrival from junior college, Orenzo Davis was a great complement to quarterback sensation DeNarius McGhee. Davis’ 1,126 yards and 10 TDs helped the Bobcats put together one of their best offensive seasons in history, and allowed the Cats to rush for 175.7 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. Davis has enough speed to burn you around the edge, but he is tough enough to pound you between the tackles.
It didn’t take Zach Bauman long to establish himself as NAU’s No. 1 option on the ground. In his first-ever collegiate game, Bauman rushed for 167 yards and four TDs to lead the Lumberjacks to a Week 1 victory. It continued from there. Bauman ranked fourth in the Big Sky in rushing yards by season’s end (1,059) and tied for the league lead in TDs on the ground (14).
It seems Bryan Hilliard has been at Sacramento State forever. It probably feels that way to the league’s coaches, at least. Hilliard rushed for 1,000 yards as a sophomore in 2008 but sat out the following season after having surgery on both shoulders. He came back last year in solid form, and finished with nearly 900 yards and 12 TDs on the ground. Hilliard is the Hornets’ third all-time leading rusher and will undoubtedly pad those numbers in the fall.
Peter Nguyen isn’t big (he’s listed at 5-8, 182), but boy is he fast. That said, Nguyen could be the perfect ingredient as Montana fine-tunes its spread-option offense from last season. Nguyen didn’t get many carries behind Chase Reynolds last year – understandably so. But he’s shown flashes in his career: Nguyen averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a redshirt freshman under former coach Bobby Hauck. This season is his time to shine along with backfield mate Jordan Canada, who could be high on this list by the end of the season.
When Taiwan Jones went down during Eastern Washington’s run to the FCS championship, Mario Brown was called on to fill those formidable shoes. Brown’s biggest impact came in the semifinal round when he rushed for 104 yards in a victory over then-defending champion Villanova. He’ll get his chance to take the reins full-time in 2011. … With Bo Bolen gone and Vai Tafuna graduated, Josh Booker should be the man for Weber State. Booker had 550 yards and averaged a team-high 6.0 yards per rush last season. … Are you wondering about Giovannie Dixon’s impact? Dixon closed the 2010 season with a 219 yards and two TDs in a 62-14 thrashing of Portland State. Oh yeah. And the Arizona Daily Sun recently reported he’d been clocked at 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash. … Tray Robinson came on at the end of last season at Nebraska but decided to follow former high school teammate DeNarius McGhee to MSU. That could pay big dividends for the Cats, who figure to get strong production from the 230-pound Robinson. … Once a touted recruit at Washington, Demitrius Bronson played in seven games as a true freshman with the Huskies. He wasn’t a factor last year, though, and is hungry to succeed with the Eagles.
LOOKING BACK: Don’t forget to revisit last year’s list. http://billingsgazette.com/sports/college/blogs/catgrizinsider/article_c787b3c4-6df3-11df-847f-001cc4c002e0.html
By Greg Rachac, The Billings Gazette