The FBS’ all-time leading rusher, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey, played in the Mountain West for four seasons. Now that he’s headed to the NFL, who’ll take over as college football’s premier Group of Five running back?
The Group of Five produced a spate of gifted running backs a season ago, none better than San Diego State record-setter Donnel Pumphrey, who sprinted for an FBS-high 2,133 yards. Pumphrey is no longer an amateur, neither are so many of the top rushers from the non-Power Five conferences. In their place will step a new wave of opportunistic backs, who’ve registered big numbers in recent years, without necessarily attracting big love outside of their respective leagues.
Top Returning Group Of Five, Independent RBs
10. Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
9. James Gilbert, Ball State
8. Ray Lawry, Old Dominion
7. Jalin Moore, Appalachian State
6. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
5. Josh Adams, Notre Dame
Adams possesses the tools and potential to be one of the nation’s elite runners, though a hamstring injury and the general demise of the Irish slowed him in 2016. He’s a sturdy back at almost 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, with the giddy-up to rip off large chunks of real estate. Adams already has eight 100-yard games in his first two seasons, capped by a career-best 180 versus USC to close his sophomore year. And with Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey blocking for him, he could be the catalyst of the new attack in 2017.
4. Larry Rose III, New Mexico State
A sports hernia prevented Rose from building on his breakout sophomore year. But he’s the same explosive back who rushed for 1,651 yards and 14 touchdowns on 240 carries in 2015. Rose missed the first three games last year, and was never quite the same after that point. When healthy, though, he’s a shifty and explosive 5-foot-11, 190-pounder, who runs with something to prove. Rose is back at full strength, as is his O-line, which ought to result in similar production as two years ago in Las Cruces.
3. James Butler, Nevada
Butler has been one of the country’s most dependable backs, rushing for more than 1,300 yards in each of the last two seasons. He hits the hole quickly and accelerates into daylight to create a footrace with defenders. The 5-foot-9, 210-pound Butler also proved to be a valuable member of the passing game in 2016, catching 37 balls for 381 yards and three scores. He has a well-deserved chance to finally become the face of the Mountain West backs now that Donnel Pumphrey, Brian Hill and Jeremy McNichols have departed.
2. D’Angelo Brewer, Tulsa
Brewer shared the Golden Hurricane backfield with James Flanders in 2016, yet he still rushed for 1,435 yards and seven touchdowns. What might he accomplish now that Flanders has used up his eligibility? Brewer is poised to become the focal point of an attack looking to replace last year’s quarterback, leading rusher and top two receivers. He should be up to the challenge, bulking up in each of the last two offseasons and having a firm handle on Philip Montgomery’s offensive system.
1. Ito Smith, Southern Miss
From very early in his Golden Eagle career, it was clear that Smith was underrated coming out of high school. He’s produced at a high level in each of his three seasons in Hattiesburg, peaking with 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns as the feature back a year ago. Additionally, he caught 43 passes for 459 yards and two more scores. Smith is very quick in space, using his nifty footwork and sharp cuts to make defenders miss before heading off to the races.