Pittsburgh's Ray Graham returns from injury as the premiere running back in the 2012 Big East Conference preseason.
1. Pittsburgh – Ray Graham was leading the Big East Conference in rushing yards (958) last year when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in week eight. He still finished atop the yards-per-carry list with 5.8. Graham has not played since but is scheduled to be back at full health during training camp for his senior season. Zach Brown and Isaac Bennett finished the season with a combined 573 yards. Bennett returns but freshman sensation Rushel Shell will likely receive the most attention and carries behind Graham. If he stays healthy in head coach Paul Chryst’s run-first offense, Graham could contend for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back.
2. Connecticut – Head coach Paul Pasqualoni exchanged quarterbacks during games often last year, and is juggling five players in the QB spot so far this year. Conversely, regarding running backs, Pasqualoni said earlier this year: "We’re trying to develop the depth we have, but I’m all for one guy staying out there." That "one guy" was Lyle McCombs last season. The Staten Island native rushed for 1150 yards (second in Big East) and seven TDs en route to Freshman All American honors. This year is will be joined in the backfield by power backs Martin Hyppolite and Max DeLorenzo. Pay close attention for the emergence of freshman Joe Williams, who drew a lot of praise and attention during spring ball.
3. Rutgers – Sophomore Jawan Jamison finished 2011 with 897 rushing yards and nine TDs. He promises to improve this year, as does his classmate, Savon Huggins, who, as a highly touted prospect, had a disappointing freshman campaign that ended in November with a knee injury. The Scarlet Knights will add two redshirt freshmen at the position – Vince DePaola and Paul James – as well as coveted recruit Desmon Peoples. Head coach Kyle Flood has a lot of depth and talent on his roster, which should give Rutgers a strong ground attack throughout the season.
4. Louisville – The Cardinals strong offensive line and passing game should keep defenders from stacking the box, which should provide the tandem of Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright some running lanes. In addition special teams standout Senorice Perry is emerging in the position and could be a valuable addition in the backfield this season, along with red shirt freshman Corvin Lamb. Don’t discount the running/scrambling ability of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater either.
5. South Florida – The Bulls second leading rusher in the 2011 campaign was quarterback B.J. Daniels (601 yards), who returns for his senior season. Behind him was Demetris Murray who emerged as a reliable ball carrier with 503 yards last season. They will also have depth and experience from juniors Michael Pierre, Marcus Shaw and Bradley Battles. There is also speculation of senior wide receiver Lindsey Lamar receiving some carries for the Bulls this season. If the Bulls develop a balance passing attack, the running backs should find lots of opportunity for ground gains.
6. Cincinnati – The conference’s leading rusher last year, Isaiah Pead (1,259 yards), has headed to the NFL, which puts a great deal of pressure on his heir apparent, sophomore Jameel Poteat. George Winn could help relieve some of the pressure with a solid senior year. Sophomore Ralph David Abernathy is expected to get a fair number of carries too, and JUCO transfer Aaron Harris may be a factor as well. This group will have to find a rhythm early to solidify the ground game that was so proficient for the Bearcats last year.
7. Temple – The Owls have real talent at running back, but there are a number of other factors working against them that may limit their effectiveness in the ground game. Matt Brown returns after putting up 916 yards behind Bernard Pierce (1481) in the MAC last year. He will have to prove himself as the lead back this year though. Joining him in the backfield will be Kenneth Harper and Jalen Fitzpatrick, who had an impressive spring session. Another possibility is highly regarded freshman Montrell Dobbs, a Connecticut native who had originally committed to the Huskies before some academic issues caused him to switch to Temple.
EDIT (July 8): The Owls have brought in former Boston College running back Montel Harris, who has a year of eligibility remaining. This move should substantially improve the Owls ground game this fall.
8. Syracuse – Antwon Bailey had 1050 yards rushing last year. The Orange’s next leading rusher, Jerome Smith, had 134 yards. Bailey now plays on Sundays, and the Orange have a lot of ground to make up with his departure. Smith is back but will likely play behind Adonis Ameen-Moore or Prince-Tyson Gulley. Much has been made about the athleticism of freshman quarterback recruit Ashton Broyld. Could he lead an occasional wildcat formation to keep defenses guessing and the changes moving?
2012 Big East Position Rankings: Quarterbacks