Sometimes it’s the quarterbacks who get all the attention. Sometimes it’s the wide receivers. But right now, in the Frontier Conference, running backs certainly are stealing the show.
In 2011, the league was littered with star running backs, 1,000-yard rushers and even the NAIA Offensive Player of the Year at Carroll College.
And guess what? Most of them are back for another season.
The Frontier is loaded with running back talent and that includes the Montana State University-Northern Lights, who return 2011 Firs
t-Team All-Conference and NAIA Honorable Mention All-American Stephen Silva. Silva, who has been starting since midway through his freshman season, is already Northern’s all-time leading rusher, and in 2011, he set the Lights’ single-season mark for yards in a season.
Last fall, Silva racked 1,305 yards on 188 attempts. Silva, who has also been an outstanding kick returner for the Lights over the years, averaged a stellar six yards per carry, which was second-best in the Frontier in 2011. And with three years of experience under his belt, and coming off a monster 2011 campaign, Silva (5-9, 190) enters his senior season as one of the top running backs in the country and an important leader on a potent Lights’ offense.
“Stephen has had a great career for us and really had an awesome season last fall. He broke our single season rushing record and to be named All Conference and All American was a definite tribute to how hard he works,” Northern offensive coordinator Kyle Samson said. “Stephen is definitely not the biggest guy on the field but there is no one that will ever out work him and the passion that he plays with is second to none.
“He definitely gets out of football what he puts into it,” he added. “He is the ultimate team player and is never the type of guy who gets caught up in stats, he just wants to win. We expect a big season out of Stephen in his last year for us and I know his goals are to be better than he was last year and I definitely think he will do that. Stephen is probably the fastest guy on our team and he has always had great speed but what really made him standout last fall was his vision and patience as a runner. He worked very hard on those two things and he has become one of the top backs in the conference and in the nation. Stephen is a pleasure to coach and is one of those guys that any coach would love to have on his team because of how hard he works and his extreme love of the game.”
Silva will get the bulk of Northern’s carries and he’s also an outstanding pass catcher out of the backfield. But fellow senior Justin Montelius, and perhaps the top fullback in the league, James Chandless, give the Lights a dangerous and stellar rushing attack in 2012.
But with how good Northern is in the backfield, it’s tough for any NAIA team to stack up to what Carroll can throw at opposing defenses.
Former Malta prep standout Chance Demarais returns for his senior season after earning the NAIA Offensive MVP a year ago. Demarais (6-0, 227) rushed for 1,805 yards and 19 touchdowns in just nine games last season, and if healthy, he’s a threat to bust the 2,000-yard barrier this season.
But Demarais isn’t the only star in the Saints’ backfield. As a true freshman in 2011, Dustin Rinker exploded onto the Frontier scene by rushing for 1,070 yards on just 151 totes. In a backup role, Rinker was exceptional, averaging a whopping 7.1 yards per carry, and with Demarias and beyond, Rinker is a bonafide superstar in what has become a legendary Carroll rushing attack.
While Demarais led the league in rushing a year ago, with Silva third and Rinker fifth, another young phenom is also back.
Returning as just a sophomore, big things will certainly be expected from Montana Tech’s Pat Hansen (5-9, 185). As a freshman, Hansen exploded last season, rushing for 1,383 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was one of four running backs to average more than 100 yards per game last season and he’s as tough and hard-nosed as they come. Hansen may be short in stature but he’s a tackle-breaking machine. And after a star-studded rookie season in the Frontier, Hansen was named an NAIA Preseason All-American, and he will give Demarias, Silva and Rinker a run for the money for the league’s rushing title in 2012.
Eastern Oregon is the only team to lose a 1,000-yard rusher to graduation, but they won’t be hitting the panic button just yet. Gone is two-time NAIA All-American Kevin Sampson, but junior Abraham Naway (5-11, 200) should be ready to step right in and keep the Mounties’ running game rolling. Naway didn’t see many carries a year ago behind Sampson, but he did earn all-conference honors at wide receiver. This season, he should be EOU’s starter at tailback and an exciting dual threat out of the backfield in what is a rebuilding year for the Mountie offense.
UM-Western graduated a stellar tailback of its own in the hard-nosed Charlie Dotson, but the Bulldog rushing attack shouldn’t miss a beat with junior T.J. Leap. He showed signs of brilliance in limited duty last season, rushing for 395 yards in a backup role. This season, Leap (5-11, 200) will be the feature back for Western and don’t be surprised is he has a huge season behind one of the league’s biggest offensive lines.
Finally, one of the new kid’s on the block will also have a star running back for fans to keep an eye on.
Southern Oregon has an exciting tailback in Murray Barragon (5-9, 190). He’s fast and shift and rushed for 528 yards and five touchdowns last season. Barragon helps lead a potent Red Raider offense into a new Frontier era and is just one of a stable of great running backs in the Frontier Conference this season.
Editor’s Note: The Havre Daily News continues its breakdown of the top returning players in the Frontier Conference with a look at the defensive linemen on Wednesday.