Southern Miss football coach Jay Hopson spoke to the Hattiesburg American this week at Conference USA Media Days.
Jason Munz/Hattiesburg American
IRVING, Texas — Conference USA — like the rest of college football — has, in recent years, become as pass-happy, quarterback-centric a league as there is in the country.
Topping the 4,000-yard plateau is quickly becoming the norm for quarterbacks in C-USA, whereas prior to 2008, nobody had even sniffed such an accomplishment. Take last season, for instance: two of the nation’s top five quarterbacks in terms of passing yards came out of C-USA, and both threw for more than 4,300 yards. In 2014 and 2015, the No. 1 passer in all of college football was Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty.
This year, however, the league may very well be in store for a reversion to a time when running back was king and an elite ground game was the ticket to success. Only two quarterbacks who threw for more than 2,700 yards a year ago will be back in 2017, while four of the seven 1,000-yard rushers and 10 of the top 15 return.
Many C-USA coaches foresee this season as one that leans more toward the smash-mouth version of the game that’s gradually been overtaken by the kinds of offensive schemes with labels like “spread,” “up-tempo,” and “air raid” attached to them.
Louisiana Tech football coach Skip Holtz spoke to the Hattiesburg American this week at Conference USA Media Days.
Jason Munz/Hattiesburg American
“Definitely the running backs are what you see most focus on around the league on offense,” Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder said this week at Conference USA Media Days. “And there are some really good receivers. The question this year is will there be enough good quarterbacks to put the ball down the field?”
Southern Miss’ Jay Hopson agrees.
“Was it (2007), the year (C-USA) had DeAngelo Williams, Ahmad Bradshaw, Kevin Smith, Damion Fletcher, Matt Forte?” he asked rhetorically. “It was just like every week there was a first-round NFL back, and I think we’ve kind of got that scenario this year. A lot of outstanding backs.”
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Highlighting this year’s class in C-USA is the Golden Eagles’ Ito Smith. A junior last season, he rushed for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns. ODU’s Ray Lawry (1,255 in 2017), Louisiana Tech’s Jarred Craft (1,074) and FAU’s Devin Singletary (1,021) are also back for another year. North Texas’ Jeffery Wilson and Florida International’s Alex Gardner, who each put up more than 900 yards on the ground, will try to join the 1,000-yard club this season.
Besides the depth and quality of the running back group in C-USA, the league’s coaches could be faced with the added difficulty of having to alter (if only slightly in some cases) their defensive game plans, most of which they’ve spent the past decade gearing toward defending the pass.
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith is Conference USA’s top returning running back. (Photo: File photo/USA TODAY Sports)
“That could be a challenge,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “Especially if you’re talking about teams that not only have a great running game and quality running backs but they’ve also got a quality passing game. It’s a double-edged sword (in those cases).”
“Anytime a team has an excellent running back, that’s always probably fear one,” Hopson said. “That’ll certainly get your ears perked up because you have to stop the run first.”
There are those around the league, though, that believe no matter how rich the landscape is in terms of running backs, quarterback still trumps all.
“You do have some really good running backs (in Conference USA) coming back,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “But I still think, especially with the way the game has evolved and developed, the game is still about a quarterback. If a team has a great running back, you can scheme to stop the run. But if you can’t pair him with a good quarterback, it makes things very difficult.”