Mountain West Preview: Contenders relying on new crop of running backs

Boise State is looking for its next feature back with D.J. Harper off to the NFL. (Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports – Brian Losness)

In 2012 the Mountain West Conference produced eight runners who topped 1,000 yards on the ground, tied with the Big Ten for second-most among all conferences and trailing only the SEC, which had nine. The league’s two newcomers, San Jose State and Utah State, also had 1,000-yard rushers a year ago.

Last season’s leading rusher, Stefphon Jefferson of Nevada, returns. Five of 10, however, have now matriculated: Fresno State’s Robbie Rouse, Air Force’s Cody Getz, Boise State’s D.J. Harper, USU’s Kerwynn Williams and SJSU’s De’Leon Eskridge. That leaves a whole mess of contenders for the conference title now searching for replacements as their featured back.

If one of those five squads can find a workhorse, it might make the difference in winning the Mountain West. Here's a look at how each situation is shaping up.

*Boise looks like it’s in the best position to keep on chugging along. (You didn’t think Chris Petersen would get caught flat-footed, did you?)

As a freshman, Jay Ajayi capably backed up Harper, carrying the ball 82 times for 548 yards and 4 TD. In his sophomore season, the 222-pound thumper out of Plano, Texas, should provide a nice complement to a passing game that should improve in quarterback Joe Southwick’s second year as a starter. Both of those “shoulds” are predicated on the Broncos getting solid play from an offensive line with three new starters, of course.

*At Fresno, Rouse had a big hand in helping Tim DeRuyter get off to a fast start in his head coaching debut. Between carries and catches, Rouse touched the ball an average of 27 times per game last year and rolled up nearly 2,000 yards of total offense. Sophomore Marteze Waller (41 carries, 174 yards, 1 TD in ‘12) and transfer Josh Quezada will likely combine in a committee approach and face soft defenses preoccupied with the Bulldogs dynamic receivers and star quarterback Derek Carr.

*The Bulldogs’ situation mirrors what new San Jose St. coach Ron Caragher is facing in his first year. The Spartans have a dangerous passing attack led by an NFL prospect at quarterback, senior David Fales, but little in the way of proven performers to join him in the backfield. Junior Tyler Ervin will get the bulk of the carries, but Caragher will also sprinkle in a combo of JUCO transfer Alvin Jelks, senior Jason Simpson and freshman newcomer Osirus Burke.

Unfortunately for SJSU, it sounds like a deep rotation, but not exactly a talented group overall.

*Heading into 2013, Air Force is looking for a replacement for not just Getz. The Falcons also lost quarterback and second-leading rusher Conner Dietz and fullback Wes Cobb to graduation. Junior Jon Lee now has the inside track to be the lead back in Troy Calhoun’s funky Flexbone offense. Identifying a capable triggerman could prove to be the bigger challenge.

*The story for Utah St. as it has risen up the ranks of college football’s non-AQ powers has centered around the heady play of signal caller Chuckie Keeton and a defense that is one of the country’s best kept secrets. That didn’t leave much room for Williams (218 attempts, 1,512 yards, 15 TDs) outside of the national spotlight, but his departure leaves a giant hole for the Aggies to fill at tailback. Enter junior Joe Hill, who managed to hit paydirt seven times last season in primarily spot duty.