A few years ago I wrote an article highlighting the talented quarterbacks in the Mountain West. At the time, the year 2013, the Mountain West was full of gunslingers. Of the five quarterbacks on that list four of them currently are playing professionally. Two in the NFL, and two in the CFL. The other became a coach for his college old coach. At the time the Mountain West was a conference of flying the football all over the field, and a handful of them being very effective dual threat quarterbacks.
How times have changed. Now we’re talking about the Mountain West maybe having the most talented group of running backs amongst the FBS conferences. There are five returning running backs that ranked in the top 50 in FBS in rushing yards last season. Four more within the top 100. That’s a serious shift in what Mountain West teams are trying to accomplish vs three years ago when quarterbacks dominated the league. Eight of the Mountain West’s teams last season finished in the top 50 in rushing yards per game. Only one Mountain West team finished in the top 50 in passing offense, Boise State.
The five running backs that rushed in the top 50 are Donnel Pumphrey from San Diego State (7th), Brian Hill from Wyoming (9th), James Butler from Nevada (20th), Jeremy McNichols from Boise State (25th), Paul Harris from Hawaii (40th) and Jacobi Owens from Air Force (47th). There is an impressive group of running backs ahead of Brian Hill and Donnel Pumphrey that could have three first round picks in the 2017 NFL draft. The group also had two picks go in the first two rounds of the 2016 NFL draft. That’s some impressive company for two Mountain West running backs who flew mostly under the radar last season. They don’t have the household name of Christian McCaffery, Leonard Fournette, or Dalvin Cook, but are very talented ball carriers.
If you look at New Mexico their triple option offense is going to produce ball carriers. Last season a combination of Teriyon Gipson, Jhurell Pressley, and Lamar Jordan carried the Lobos to an average of 252 yards per game. Air Force has run the same triple option based attack for decades and rushed for 319 yards per game. Last season they were led by running back Jacobi Owens and quarterback Karson Roberts. The rest of the running backs are the feature back in their offense and accumulate the majority of the carries for those teams.
Is the Mountain West’s changing attitude in offense based on what will work against Power 5 opponents? Or is it just an ebb and flow of coaches through the conference currently, and it’s just happenstance that the paradigm of offense in the conference is now different? Depending how you tend to look at things it seems like the Mountain West could be changing up their offenses to control the ball. Perhaps the shift also has to do with maximizing the the talent that may not be as rich in the Mountain West compared to the Power 5 conferences. Either way, the trend has changed.
Looking at the returning backs this season there’s seven running backs that stand out as being the “cream of the crop” in the conference. Barring any kind of injuries it seems likely that all seven will finish in the top 50 in rushers this season. It’s entirely possible that two or three of these backs will finish in the top 10.
Donnel Pumphrey from San Diego State returns as the top back from last season. He rushed for 1653 yards on 309 attempts. Pumphrey had 17 touchdowns and finished seventh in the NCAA in rushing yards. He is a senior from Las Vegas. Pumphrey will be depended on heavily for the Aztecs as they look towards a New Years Day bowl. The Aztecs were the Mountain West champions but did not earn the Group of Five bid to a New Years Day bowl. The Aztecs had a 4th quarter field goal that broke a tie with Air Force and sealed the game. San Diego State has been picked to win the West division and will need everything Pumphrey has to offer to win the conference. Pumphrey has been named to the Doak Walker Award watch list this upcoming season.
Brian Hill from Wyoming, a junior from Belleville, Illinois had 1631 yards on 281 attempts and six touchdowns. That was ninth in the NCAA. Hill was one of the few bright spots for the Cowboys last season. The Cowboys finished with only two wins on the season, but their star running back was dominant throughout the year. Hill averaged 135 yards per game last season, ranking him eighth in the country. If the Cowboys have any hope at pushing past beyond two wins this season they will need Hill’s legs to carry them. The Cowboys are picked to finish dead last in the conference. Hill was named to the Doak Walker Award watch list this upcoming season.
Jeremy McNichols, a junior from Long Beach, California, had 1337 yards on 240 attempts and 20 touchdowns. That finished at 25th in the NCAA last season. McNichols comes from a balanced offense with the Broncos who ranked highly in rushing and passing. McNichols may be depended on a little more this season with Brett Rypien taking a more active role in Boise’s offense. He will help ease the load on the young gunslinger and allow for a nice, balanced attack. The Broncos will be looking to make their return to the Mountain West title game this upcoming season and will need McNichols’ legs. Jeremy McNichols has been named to the Maxwell Award watch list this coming season.
James Butler, a junior from Bloomingdale, Illinois, ran for 1342 yards on 207 attempts and ten touchdowns. That was 23rd in the NCAA last season. The Wolf Pack’s junior back turned in a nice season last year. The Wolf Pack played in a post season bowl, the Arizona Bowl vs Colorado State. Seven times last season Butler rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. When he ran for more than 100 yards in a game the Pack was 6-1. For the upcoming season Butler has been named to the Maxwell award watch list as well as the Doak Walker award watch list.
Jacobi Owens, a senior from Las Vegas, rushed for 1092 yards on 205 attempts and seven touchdowns. That was good enough for 47th in the NCAA. Jacobi Owens is one of the most decorated backs in Air Force history. He is currently ranks eleventh in Air Force history in career rushing and will be adding to that this season. Owens was an honorable mention on the All-Mountain West team last season. The Falcons played in last season’s Mountain West title game, a loss to San Diego State. Owens, along with his running mates, should be able to compete for another Mountain division title. They will face a stiff test to end the season, a home date with Boise State.
Paul Harris, a junior from Columbus, Ohio, rushed for 1137 yards on 197 attempts and six touchdowns. That finished at 40th in the NCAA. Harris doesn’t get a lot of press, but he’s a very effective back for the Rainbow Warriors. Harris’s experience will be a help for first year head coach Nick Rolovich. If Rolovich’s years at Nevada are any indication the football is going to fly. Harris will still need to control football games but could see his carries slightly decrease in this new offense. Paul Harris was the first 1000 yard rusher for the Warriors since 2010, and the second since 1992. Harris is the back the Warriors have needed for a long time. Last season was his first with the Warriors, a transfer from Venture College.
Teriyon Gipson, a junior from Dallas, rushed for 850 yards on 147 attempts and six touchdowns. That was 88th in the NCAA last season. Gipson is somewhat of an outlier in this list due to his not rushing for 1000 yards last season. He splits his carries in the triple option attack that Bob Davie has employed, but has had success. Gipson’s productivity has increased every season he has been a Lobo and should increase again this season. The one-two combo of quarterback Lamar Jordan and Gipson should put the Lobos near the top in FBS in rushing yards again this season. It may not be likely that Gipson will rush for more than 1000 yards, but will get his carries and touchdowns.
The Mountain West is loaded with talent and if these backs can live up to their projections they should be the most productive group in FBS. The era of the rushing attack has come full circle to the Mountain West.