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MWC Unit Previews: BACKFIELDS

The backfields in the MWC are deeper than I’ve ever seen. There is a logjam at the top, with Utah, TCU, Colorado State, and Air Force each returning more talent and experience than they dare dreamed of only a year ago. BYU, New Mexico, and Wyoming all have good backs returning, but are counting on some inexperienced and talented runners to put their rushing games over the top.

UNLV and San Diego State (and New Mexico) were moribund on the ground last year, and the year before, and before that too, and it remains to be seen whether or not the stable of backs on their rosters will succeed in challenging defensive fronts in 2010. I don’t include UNM here, mostly because we know that the Lobos have the talent to do well, if any other part of the offense rises from the grave the team dug for itself in 2009.

In order (roughly) from best to worst, here’s the Wimple’s guide to the conference’s 2010 backfields.

Utah has the best thunder and lightning combination in the conference, according to Phil Steele, who loves sixth-year Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide, with Sausan Shakerin for depth. While nobody will argue with the proposition that this trio is formidable, I question Asiata’s durability, and further would argue that TCU, Colorado State, and Air Force create just as many headaches for the opposing defenses as Utah. TCU and CSU, as a bonus, feature slightly younger backfields, and TCU, CSU, and AFA have four genuine running threats to Utah’s three. So call it a tie: Utah, AFA, TCU, and CSU are simply loaded with tailbacks and ordering them one way or another is henpecking, and nothing more.

Colorado State, in a change of pace, has one of the conference’s best rotations of ball carriers. Leonard Mason and John Mosure return. Mason was perhaps the only runningback in the 2010 MWC who was able to put up yardage on TCU’s defense in 2009. (Harvey Unga was decent, as well, but doesn’t return.) Mason was injured in the first quarter of the Rams’ tilt with the Frogs last season, and only after the injury did TCU contain Colorado State. To my knowledge, no other commentator noticed or has talked about this feather in Mason’s cap. However, his feathered cap may be second fiddle to UCLA transfer Raymond Carter’s, who has powered himself to the front of the depth chart in Fort Collins. Between Carter, Mason, Mosure, and thunder sophomore Chris Nwoke, the Rams find themselves suddenly and surprisingly rich in runningbacks. If the line ahead of them, which is offendingly inexperienced, can gel, expect a rapid revival of Ram fans’ bowl hopes in 2010.

TCU is perhaps the closest thing to a runningback’s paradise in the MWC. The Frogs' defense will keep the Frogs’ offense on the field, and the Frogs’ passing offense will generate plenty of room for the boys totin’ the rock to do their thing. And just who will be those rock toters? Sophomores Matt Tucker and Ed Wesley return, and will vie for the blue ribbon as the conference’s best thunder-lightning duo. A second such duo, UCLA transfer Aundre Dean and redshirt freshman Waymon James, is lined up behind the returners, and has made nothing but waves in practice. Look for Ed Wesley to line up in the slot as often as he does in the backfield. It looks like TCU will have fresh legs in every series this season. Ultra-talented freshman Dwight Smith’s return from an ACL tear is one of two wildcards this season. Speedy sophomore Skye Dawson is the other; Dawson ran long sweeps in 2009, and little else. How the Frogs work him into games is one of the team’s curiosities for this season– and for the conference's defensive coordinator’s night sweat.

One of the MWC’s perpetual ironies is how scary Air Force is every year on the ground. The Falcons, with or without senior Savior Stephens, (likely without) will feature a frightful ground attack in 2010. If Stephens returns, the Falcons will return every player who gained yards on the ground in 2009. Juniors Asher Clark and Tim Jefferson are as seasoned and skillful as any duo of playmakers in Colorado Springs in a decade. Their excellence ought to shame anyone who derided Fisher DeBerry for his observation that the Academy needed some fast Afro-American runners like TCU has. Troy Calhoun, whom the Academy brought in after disgracing and firing DeBerry for that comment, followed DeBerry’s advice to the letter, and has revived AFA’s football immediately and considerably.

With Jefferson (QB) and Clark (TB) are QB Connor Dietz, whom Calhoun has said is too talented to keep off the field. This season he is practically a returning starter, having started three games last season. And what of Jared Tew, the fullback and Academy’s yard leader last season? He’s back, as is Jonathan Warzeka and Nathan Walker, who combined for 90 touches and almost 500 yards.

Those are the conference leaders on the ground. Behind them are two classes of teams: the high-potential attacks, but for inexperience or other stigma, and the awful-with-conditions bottom-feeders.

New Mexico, Wyoming, and BYU each expect to have good ground games, but... but there is a but that must accompany those expectations. Good ground games at San Diego State and UNLV would be welcome surprises. Expect these two to hold down the bottom of the conference on the ground. Again.

San Diego State is the other Mountain West team that has been waiting for a ground game to enliven its pass-heavy offense for years. Last season’s surprise, Walter Kazee, returns, as does Davon Brown, now a senior long accustomed to the Aztecs’ awful push up front. All three of these returners will step aside for Ronnie Hillman, who probably ought to have been in uniform last season, but didn’t enroll until spring this year. Hillman has a lot of hype to live up to, but early returns are that he’s the best runningback at the Mesa in years. has been chasing the chimera of a decent ground game for years. This season the Rebels have hired a ground-oriented coach, who with the help of a veteran (for the shotgun spread) offensive line and a lot of returning rushers, may realize that long-sought dream in Las Vegas. C.J. Cox led after spring, to the surprise of some commentators. Channing Trotter brings starting experience to the mix, and Bradley Randle may be more talented then either of them. How they’ll fare in Hauck’s new world remains to be seen.

Wyoming has a clear starter and leader returning to the backfield, in sophomore Alvester Alexander. Alexander tallied a 4.7 ypc mark in 13 games (four of them starts) last season. He leads a group of otherwise brand-new tailbacks into 2010. Nehemie Kankolongo enrolled early from Canada, and hopes to push Alexander for the starting role. Otherwise the Cowboys have converted a cornerback to runningback to fill out the depthchart. Look for Alexander, and Alexander, and again Alexander in Laramie, especially early in the season. Cowboy watchers hope the Christensen spread will take wing this season, taking pressure off the backfield that saved the team in ‘09.

BYU lost a tremendous set of backs in the graduation of Manase Tonga and the... resignation?... of Harvey Unga, who is now with the Chicago Bears. Behind them are a set of very talented, and very inexperienced runningbacks who are very likely to pile up very respectable yardage in 2010. Early-enrolled true freshman Josh Quezada and returners J.J. DiLuigi and Bryan Kariya each have lots of upside. Kariya has the most experience, including a good high visibility effort against OU to start 2009. DiLuigi has been compared to LaDainian Tomlinson, and Quezada made waves in the spring. How the three will be ordered come bowl season is one of the most intriguing questions not about a quarterback in Provo this fall. That one or more of them will an effective college runningback is pretty much a given.

New Mexico has perhaps one of the hardest units to predict for 2010. The Lobos were eye-wateringly bad on the ground in 2009. Truly there is nowhere to go but up. What is strange in Albuquerque is that there appears to be a decent stock of talent on the roster. Sophomore Demond Dennis led the team last season (averaging 5.5. ypc, after a breakout game against dismal Colorado State near the end of the year) and leads the depth chart in 2010. Kasey Carrier and James Wright, each returning with significant playing time until his belt, will complete the Lobo trio. Given any life at all in other aspects of the offense– no guarantee, but surely more likely than dismal 2009– the Lobos could have a decent ground attack.