Youngstown State running back Jamaine Cook has been named a preseason All-American. He was also named to the Walter Payton Award Watch List, which goes to the top offensive player among FCS schools. Quarterback Kurt Hess has also been named to the watch list. Cook rushed for 1,386 yards on 271 carries and scored 13 touchdowns. In 2011, Cook was seventh among FCS running backs (126 yards a game) and 14th in all-purpose yards (145.36 a game).
Cincinnati arguably has the toughest hole to fill at running back of any Pitt opponent. However, it's not as if the cupboard is bare. Graduated is 2011 Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead. Pead led the conference with 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns. He averaged 96.85 a game, good enough for 27th best in the nation. There are three backs capable of producing for Cincinnati this year. One of them is senior George Winn, who had a career-long 69-yard touchdown run in the Liberty Bowl win over Vanderbilt. There's also one-time Pitt verbal commit Jameel Poteat and fellow sophomore Ralph David Abernathy IV. Poteat played in 10 games last year, rushing for 108 yards on 23 carries with a touchdown. He had a season-best 55 yards on 10 carries against Akron. Abernathy played in all 13 games, rushing for 38 yards on 14 carries in a limited role. Some insiders feel Poteat showed the most promise for the future, which may give him the lead for winning the job.
For a second year in a row, the Hokies lost their top running back. This time, its ACC Offensive Player of the Year David Wilson, who rushed for 1,709 yards and 9 touchdowns. Quarterback Logan Thomas supplemented the ground attack with 469 yards on the ground and 11 touchdowns. There will be a pretty intense competition in training camp that will include redshirt freshman Michael Holmes and heralded freshman Trey Edmunds--who rushed for 2,596 yards and 33 touchdowns as a high school senior. Head coach Frank Beamer has been in this position before--replacing a successful running back. It seems he's always filled someone else in with success. Look for a tailback by committee to start the season. Holmes had a productive spring, and Edmunds shows a lot of promise. Expect to see at least those two.
Gardner-Webb features two senior running backs that were quite productive a year ago. Kenny Little led the team with 1,042 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was joined by fellow senior Ricky Rhodes, who rushed for 553 yards and another 3 touchdowns. The Running' Bulldogs ground game averaged 166.5 yards a game. Little and Rhodes offer an ideal one-two punch that should create a challenge. Little is a bigger back at 5-11, 205 pounds, with Rhodes at a shifty 5-7, 175. Rhodes was named a preseason All-America candidate, and is a threat in the return game.
The Orange have to replace 1,000-yard back Antwon Bailey. Junior Jerome Smith was the second-leading rusher on the team last year, appearing in all 12 games with 134 yards on 37 carries with a touchdown. Junior Prince-Tyson Gulley also returns. Gulley appeared in 4 games, rushing for 89 yards on 18 carries. With a senior quarterback in Ryan Nassib, the Orange may not rely on the ground game too much if Nassib's experience leads to a productive year.
Louisville graduates Vic Anderson, who had an injury-plagued career for the Cardinals. Domonique Brown--a bruiser at 6-2, 230--was just six yards behind Anderson for the team lead in rushing yards, with 533 yards and 4 touchdowns. Another junior, Jeremy Wright, rushed for 334 yards and a touchdown. Both players appeared in all 12 games. Redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb and true freshman Brandon Radcliffe--both out of Miami--could also be in the mix. The Cardinals will depend a lot on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but will need some sort of running game to make their offense more dynamic.
Buffalo returns a big-time player in Branden Oliver. Oliver, a 5-8, 204-pound junior, rushed for 1,395 yard on 306 carries with 13 touchdowns. Oliver averaged over 116 yards a game, and is a workhorse. He rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown in last year's opener at Pitt.
Temple's for ground game shattered numerous school recor thanks to the play of Bernard Pierce, who is now a member of the Baltimore Ravens. Pierce rushed for 1,481 yards and 27 touchdowns, sparking an Owls ground game that averaged 265 yards a game. Looking to fill that void will be Matt Brown. Brown still found a way to rush for 916 yards and 6 touchdowns behind Pierce's impressive numbers. Being that Temple found a way to include multiple backs in their offense, look for sophomores Jaylen Fitzpatrick and Kenny Harper to get more carries. Senior walk-on Darius Johnson should also be in the mix.
Brian Kelly will certainly have his options at running back when the Panthers come to town in November. The Irish return four of their top five rushers from 2011, including leading rusher Cierre Wood, who rushed for 1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns. Andrew Hendrix appeared in five games, rushing for 162 yards and a touchdown. Hendrix averaged 6.5 yards a carry. Theo Riddick--an all-purpose back--rushed for 68 yards and can also line up at receiver. George Atkinson III rushed for 29 yards and 2 scores in a limited role. Atkinson led the team with 124 yards in the spring game. The future of the position looks strong with the addition of USC transfer Amir Carlisle and freshman Will Mahone. Carlisle will have to sit out the 2012 season due to the transfer rule.
After a trip to Notre Dame, the Pitt defense doesn't get a break, as they will face UConn's Lyle McCombs. McCombs was a Freshman All-America selection, and second-team All-Big East performer after rushing for 1,151 yards and 7 touchdowns. McCombs has been selected to the Doak Walker Preseason Watch List, along with Pitt's Ray Graham.
The Rutgers ground game is in very good hands with Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins. Jamison began the season fourth on the depth chart, but went on to lead the Scarlet Knights with 897 yards and 9 touchdowns. He earned MVP honors in the Pinstripe Bowl win over Iowa State, after rushing for 131 yards and 2 touchdowns. Huggins also saw significant time as a true freshman, rushing for 146 yards and 5 touchdowns, but did not appear in the final four games due to a knee injury. Statistically, Huggins' best game was against Pitt--42 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown. The question for the Scarlet Knights this year will be if Jamison can repeat his success and produce even more, and if Huggins can challenge him for additional carries.
South Florida graduates leading rusher Darrell Scott--who is now with the Dallas Cowboys. The Bulls ranked 31st in the country last year, averaging 183 yards a game on the ground. Quarterback B.J. Daniels finished second on the team with 601 yards and 6 touchdowns. Demetrius Murray rushed for 503 yards and 8 touchdowns, earning four starts. Lindsey Lamar rushed for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns, starting two games. Oth are seniors, and combined with a senior quarterback, have the potential to be a challenge.