Boise State Football

Running backs the class of Mountain West, BSU’s McNichols included

Jeremy McNichols and his BSU teammates open the season Sept. 3 at Louisiana.
Jeremy McNichols and his BSU teammates open the season Sept. 3 at Louisiana. Idaho Statesman file

When a player who racked up 1,797 yards from scrimmage and was tied for the national lead with 26 total touchdowns last year doesn’t make the preseason all-conference team, you know it is a league stacked at running back.

That extremely productive player is Boise State junior Jeremy McNichols, who was not one of the two running backs on the Mountain West’s preseason all-conference team, announced Tuesday at media days. San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey and Wyoming’s Brian Hill were the two selections.

San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey, the preseason offensive player of the year, speaks at Mountain West Media Days on July 27, 2016 in Las Vegas.

“You’ve got to be a really good tackler in this league,” UNLV linebacker Ryan McAleenan said. “It’s surprising to hear (McNichols) wasn’t on it, but I’m sure he’ll get something at the end of the year.”

Six of the Mountain West’s nine 1,000-yard rushers from last season return, paced by Pumphrey and Hill, who rushed for 1,653 and 1,631 yards, respectively. They combined for 26 total touchdowns last season.

Four more returning players ran for at least 800 yards last year.

“It’s awesome, kind of feeling we’re a running back-type of conference now, and I like that,” Pumphrey said.

Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said one of the most interesting things about the Mountain West is its mix of offensive styles, whether it is power-run attacks like Wyoming or San Diego State, option teams such as Air Force and New Mexico, or balanced attacks like Boise State.

He said “unlike the Big 12, where everybody’s spread,” there’s a little more attention paid to the run in Mountain West game-planning.

“I love it. It feels like we’re back,” Hill said. “In high school, it was like college football was all spread teams. ... It’s kind of refreshing to know I don’t have to pass block every play.”

A strong running game gives the conference an advantage, San Diego State coach Rocky Long said.

“The Mountain West is coming the other way,” Long said. “They’re going (up the middle) while everyone else is going out. I think it gives the Mountain West a better chance to win out of conference. If you control the ball, don’t turn the ball over, you keep those spread offenses off the field and you wear down their defense.”

In Hill’s eyes, teams are simply taking advantage of what they have in stock. From the versatile McNichols to the shifty Pumphrey, league coaches are trusting gifted players to make big plays.

“It’s really coming down to the running back being one of the best athletes on every team in our league,” Hill said. “When one of your best athletes is your running back, you’ve got to give him the ball.”

Last season, Mountain West teams ran the ball 6,611 times combined and threw it 4,192. They rushed for 31,274 yards and passed for 29,710. Two option teams certainly help, but six other teams were in the top 47 nationally in rushing.

“It’s something where you almost scout the running back more than the quarterback,” New Mexico linebacker Dakota Cox said.

Week in and week out this fall, Mountain West defenses will be challenged to stop a running back more than capable of a big game. Only three quarterbacks averaged more than 200 yards passing per game in 2015, and even if there’s an uptick in passing this year, it looks to continue to be a run-dominated league.

It could be a trend seen across college football. Running backs have won two of the past 10 Heisman Trophies, but seven of the 12 candidates with the best odds to win it in 2016 are running backs, according to the sportsbook at The Cosmopolitan, which is hosting MW media days.

“It’s a superior group. It was the league of the quarterback, but now it’s the running back,” Nevada coach Brian Polian said.

Dave Southorn: @IDS_Southorn

Mountain West top returning rushers (by team)

  • Air Force: Jacobi Owens (1,096 yards)
  • Boise State: Jeremy McNichols (1,337)
  • Colorado State: Dalyn Dawkins (867)
  • Fresno State: Kilton Anderson, QB (211)
  • Hawaii: Paul Harris (1,132)
  • Nevada: James Butler (1,342)
  • New Mexico*: Teriyon Gipson (850)
  • San Diego State: Donnel Pumphrey (1,653)
  • San Jose State: Kenny Potter, QB (415)
  • UNLV: Lexington Thomas (506)
  • Utah State: Devante Mays (966)
  • Wyoming: Brian Hill (1,631)

* Returning New Mexico QB Lamar Jordan ran for 807 yards last year.

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