The running game. Over the last few Frontier Conference football seasons, running back and powerful running attacks have been at the forefront of all of the league’s offensive fireworks.
And though there are some great quarterbacks, and potent passing attacks in the Frontier this upcoming season, running attacks and stellar individual running attacks will certainly take center stage yet again.
The Frontier returns four 1,000-yards rushers from a season ago, and several teams bring back more than one stellar back for the 2014 season.
One of the team’s that return a 1,000-yard rusher from 2013 resides right in here in Havre. The Montana State University-Northern Lights have the luxury of returning starting running back Zach McKinley, who enters his sophomore season with a near Northern record already to his credit. Last season, McKinley (5-10, 205), rushed for 1,100 yards, which is now second on Northern’s single-season all-time rushing list.
McKinley broke out for the Lights a year ago, and it was at just the right time. Northern graduated its all-time leading rusher, Stephen Silva, in 2012 and entered the summer of 2013 without a sure starter. But, with four 100-yard games, an average of 110 yards per game and 12 touchdowns in 2013, the Lights had their new star at running back.
“Zach had a great season last year,” said Northern head coach Mark Samson. “He had some big games, but what was really impressive was how consistent he was throughout the year.”
Consistency, and health was the key to McKinley’s success. He battled injuries for his first year at Northern and really didn’t see any live action until late in the spring of 2012. Now McKinley will look to back up last year’s breakout year with a stellar sophomore campaign. Staying healthy will be key, as will having a veteran Northern offensive line to run behind. But the experience he gained a year ago, and his continued improvement in the offseason should lead to McKinley simply being one of the best backs in the entire Frontier Conference this fall.
Northern will also have a great counter-punch in running back in sophomore Mario Gabbatto. In limited duty a season ago, Gabbatto was outstanding and is an excellent power rusher.
Here’s a look at the rest of the best running backs in the Frontier Conference in 2014
As far as rushing attacks go, Carroll College is always at the top of the list. And with the return of senior running back Dustin Rinker, it’s easy to say the Fighting Saints will boast the best running game in the Frontier once again.
Rinker (5-9, 205) captured the league’s rushing title in 2013. After a slow start to his junior season, Rinker reeled off 11 straight 100-yard games, and wound up running for 1,987 yards, averaging 141 yards per game. Both were league bests in the Frontier, and placed him amongst the Top 10 in the NAIA. Rinker wound up scoring 17 times, while he rushed for 220 yards in a game against Rocky Mountain College and 193 yards in the Saints NAIA semifinal loss at Cumberlands.
Rinker now enters his senior season in pursuit of elite company. Rinker has a chance to finish his Carroll career as one of the Saints’ all-time leading rushers, and with a spectacular three years already under his built, don’t expect anything less than a spectacular season from Carroll’s short, speedy and powerful back.
At Montana Tech, the Orediggers have a similar situation to Carroll’s. Returning for his senior season in Butte is three-year All-Conference performer Pat Hansen.
Hansen (5-9, 182). In 2013, Hansen rushed for 1,009 yards and six touchdowns, but over his career, he’s been the most successful running back in the Frontier from 2011-13. In his three seasons with Tech, Hansen has gained nearly 4,000 yards and scored 35 rushing touchdowns. Hansen has averaged 112 yards per game over his career, and his 125 yards per game in 2013 was a career best. Like Rinker, Hansen has high hopes for a big senior finish, and if he has that, his Orediggers could be in store for a big year.
While Carroll and Tech are rivals, so are the Orediggers and the UM-Western Bulldogs, and they, too, return a powerful running back this fall.
Like McKinley at Northern, Western’s Sam Rutherford broke out last season. Rutherford (6-1, 215) missed three games due to injury last season, but he still averaged 112 yards per outing and a whopping nine yards per carry. He finished his first season in Dillon with over 800 yards and 11 scorers. He started last season like a man possessed, rushing for 185 yards against Southern Oregon, 220 yards against Dickinson State and 190 yards against Montana Tech. Those were his first three games, in what could have been one of the biggest season’s in Frontier history.
Rutherford is also part of an effective, two-headed attack at Western. Junior Dylan Kramer (5-10, 190) has also seen plenty of action during his Western tenure, and together, he and Rutherford could make Western one of the best running teams in the conference.
Other teams in the league will look to find new stars of their own. Southern Oregon lost Melvin Mason, who rushed for over 2,000 yards in two years with SOU, while Eastern Oregon lost Chris McGinnis-Parker, who finished 2013 with 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns, while finishing second in the conference in rushing. Rocky is also on the lookout for a new leading rusher, and the answer could be sophomore Jade Olson, who rushed for 454 yards in 2013. League newcomer College of Idaho will be breaking in several new running backs this fall.
Note: This is the fourth installment in the Havre Daily News’ breakdown of the Frontier Conference. For a look at the top defensive backs in the conference see Wednesday’s HDN.