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1) Harvey Unga, Brigham Young- Unlike other backs in our countdown, Unga’s attributes start as a runner but by no means end there. At 6’0, 245-lbs he’s a powerful back who also boasts fantastic agility, balance, and speed, making him an ideal tailback for BYU’s multi-layered offense. His 1227 and 13 touchdowns in 2007 were impressive considering he was only a freshmen, but when you factor in more than 650 receiving yards as well as his ability to pick up blitzing linebackers you get the most complete back in the non-BCS conferences.
2) Ian Johnson, Boise State- When it comes to one of the WAC’s best running backs, look no farther than Johnson, who comes into his senior season off of back-to-back 1000 yard rushing season. While he did see a dropoff in production last year he’s still one of the best start-stop runners in the entire country, and displays fantastic vision and instincts both in-between the tackles and in the open field. With Boise State breaking in a new quarterback in 2008, I look for Johnson to reassert himself on the national scene.
3) Damien Fletcher, Southern Mississippi- In a league featuring the likes of NFL bound Kevin Smith and Matt Forte, Fletcher was something of a forgotten man in C-USA last year despite rushing for nearly 1600 yards on a phenomenal 5.4 yards per carry. Also an effective receiver out of the backfield, his production could suffer in 2008 due to a change in offensive systems, but the junior will still more than likely become the first in school history to top the 1000 yard mark in three straight seasons.
4) Eugene Jarvis, Kent State- A diminutive back at only 5’5, the then sophomore Jarvis proved size doesn’t always matter in 2007 when he lead the Mid-American conference in rushing with 1669 yards on the ground. A slippery runner out of the zone system, Jarvis’ size and low center of gravity make it very difficult for defenders to get a clear shot at him. With outstanding quickness and vision, he looks poised to lead the MAC in rushing once again in 2008.
5) Luke Lippincott, Nevada- Lippincott tends to be typecast by fans and media members as a bruising, inside-the-tackles kind of runner (geez, I wonder why) but he actually has a fair amount of agility and athleticism to go along with his bulk. It’s this size and speed combination (not the mention his durability) which make him an ideal fit for Nevada’s pistol offense, and helped him garner All-Conference honors in 2007. Another year away from an ACL injury in 2005, Lippincott should have his best campaign yet this season for the Wolf Pack.
6) Ryan Mathews, Fresno State- The true freshmen out of Bakersfield, CA was quietly compiling one of the best seasons of any freshmen college football player in the country before injuries stalled his season a year ago, but despite missing two full games and numerous parts of others he still finished the year with 866 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. With an explosive first step and great acceleration, Mathews should be fully recovered coming into 2008, and looks to play a leading role in Fresno State’s run at a BCS bowl game.
7) Justin Anderson, Northern Illinois- Continuing in a long line of Northern Illinois running backs to eclipse the 1000 yard rushing mark (currently nine consecutive seasons and counting) Anderson was one of the lone bright spots during the Huskies’ 2-10 campaign a season ago, rushing for 1245 yards and eight scores despite playing behind an offensive line which struggled all season. With nine other returning starters coming back on offense Anderson can only improve his production in 2008, and could be instrumental in making Northern Illinois one of the most improved teams in the country this season.
8) James Starks, Buffalo- At 6’2, 210 Starks is big enough to be an effective inside runner, but he has uncanny straight line speed for a guy his size in the open field. He’s a dual threat player out of the backfield and has great ball skills, catching 41 passes in 2007 while not fumbling once in 251 carries. One of the key role players in Buffalo’s recent turnaround, Starks looks ready to lead the Bulls to a bowl eligible season in 2008.
9) Eric Kettani, Navy- Ok I know, technically Kettani is a fullback, but in Navy’s triple option system he’s effectively the lead ballcarrier. At 6’1, 230 he’s a physical freak who benches 400-lbs and runs in the 4.5s, and after averaging more than five yards a pop in split duty with Adam Ballard last season looks poised to become the first Navy player to eclipse 1000 yards rushing since current New England Patriot Kyle Eckel.
10) Rodney Ferguson, New Mexico- A First-Team Mountain West selection in both 2006 and 2007, Ferguson has been instrumental in making Rocky Long’s program relevant again. A powerful runner with the ability to carry the team on his back, his production in 2008 could largely depend on how New Mexico’s JUCO-implanted offensive line adjusts to Dave Baldwin’s scheme.
Just Missed the Cut- Deonte Jackson (Idaho), Jeremy Avery (Boise State), Tyrell Fenroy (Louisiana Lafayette), Reggie Arnold (Arkansas State), Devon Moore (Wyoming).
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