When you can line up Cortez Broughton in the middle of your defensive line, you have a shot at being a pretty good running defense. You wouldn’t necessarily have categorized the Cincinnati Bearcats as a great team against the run last season, but they tied for fifth in the American Athletic Conference yards allowed per run (4.05) and tied for second with conference champion Temple in rushing touchdowns allowed.
As they attempt to improve, even with some big losses in the middle of the unit, namely Eric Wilson, the schedule isn’t littered with 1,000-yard rushers from a year ago, but there is plenty of potential for this season. Here are the runners most likely to break down Broughton and the Bearcats.
Braeden West, SMU
West has developed nicely and is entering his junior year following a year with a heavy workload. The 5’10” back should be utilized just as frequently in SMU’s high-energy offense, and he’s part of the reason teams don’t just put 11 guys on Courtland Sutton and call it a day. West piled up 1,036 yards on 202 carries, making him one of only five backs in the AAC to touch the ball more than 200 times on running plays. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, but wasn’t a big scorer, tallying only six touchdowns even as the primary option on the ground.
West, who also caught 15 passes, really turned it on toward the end of the year, rushing for 100 yards in five of the last seven games of the year. He also poured it on with a 220-yard effort against Liberty, but the drop in competition obviously had a lot to do with that.
Ryquell Armstead, Temple
The Owls are under new leadership this season, so the offense may change some, but there’s no doubt that Armstead will be a big part of their plans. In sharing backfield duties with Jahad Thomas last season, Armstead racked up 919 yards and a team-high 14 touchdowns on 156 carries. His 5.9 yards per attempt average ranked seventh in the conference and fifth among players with at least 150 rushes. With Thomas gone, as well as quarterback Phillip Walker, Temple will need to lean heavily on Armstead as it breaks in a new signal caller.
You can just ask SMU or USF if Armstead is up for the challenge. The 5’11”, 205-pound back from Millville, New Jersey erupted for 210 yards and two scores on 20 carries against USF and added 159 yards and two touchdowns against the Mustangs last season. He also scored twice on the ground against the Bearcats, although he only had 61 yards on 18 carries.
If there is a knock against Armstead, it’s that he hasn’t factored much into the passing game, with all of five receptions a year ago. However, as the feature back with a new quarterback, he may be tasked with taking some easy throws out of the backfield to get the offense momentum.
Dontrell Hilliard, Tulane
Hilliard may have been the player who most benefited from the offensive overhaul Tulane has undergone with Willie Fritz as head coach. The Green Wave was one of four teams in the conference to rush for more than 220 yards per games and Hilliard was the lead back for the cause. He shared duties with Josh Rounds, who finished his college career last year. Hilliard will likely have some rushing partners in 2017, but there is no doubting he is the No. 1 option. He rushed for 759 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. His best game of the season came against Tulsa when he managed to put together a season-high 124 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries. That explosive potential is there every time he touches the ball. UC will need to be wary on Nov. 4 in New Orleans.