Defenses in the FCS can’t stop what they can’t catch.
Most of the best running backs in the FCS this season may be undersized, but they’re fast, deceptively strong and, oh, so electrifying.
Seven of the nation’s top 10 finishers in rushing yards last season are back in 2016, including Chase Edmonds (1,648, fourth). It might be time to say it’s the year of the running back across the FCS.
Here is a countdown of the 10 best returnees:
10. Corey Avery, Sam Houston State (Jr., 5-10, 190)
On a Sam Houston offense that led the FCS in yards per game, Avery stood out in his first season after transferring in from Kansas. With speed and elusiveness, he averaged more than 7.6 yards per carry while racking up 1,483 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. His season-high 197 yards came in the FCS quarterfinals against Colgate. He led Kansas in rushing yards (631) as a freshman in 2014, but was dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules.
9. Derrick Craine, Chattanooga (Sr., 5-10, 205)
After setting Chattanooga single-season records with 1,251 rushing yards and 230 carries and tying for the Southern Conference lead with 13 rushing touchdowns, the Mocs figure to make their tough featured back an even bigger part of the offense this season. He is shifty going through the offensive line, a good blocker and a reliable pass catcher (37 receptions over last two seasons). He hopes to carry the Mocs to a fourth straight conference title.
8. King Frazier, North Dakota State (Sr., 5-11, 218)
He won’t have the gaudy statistics as other FCS running backs, but no defensive back wants to get caught one-on-one with the powerful and punishing Frazier. While starting in the crowded backfield of the five-time reigning FCS national champion Bison, Frazier rushed for 1,158 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Having started his college career at Nebraska, he just bulldozes the opposition.
7. Darius Victor, Towson (Sr., 5-8, 227)
Victor has done well to follow in the footsteps of former Towson running back Terrance West. He was behind West as the 2013 CAA Football Offensive Rookie of the Year on the squad which reached the FCS championship game. A physical back who runs downhill between the tackles, Victor led the conference with 1,305 rushing yards in 2014 and followed it up with another 1,021 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground last season despite being slowed by ankle and back injuries.
6. John Santiago, North Dakota (So., 5-9, 170)
What a debut for Santiago last season, when he was the runner-up for national freshman of the year honors. He was projected to be a wide receiver in college because of his smaller size, but his speed and deceptive upper-body strength allowed him to settle into UND’s backfield. He set the school’s Division I records for rushing yards (1,459) and all-purpose yards (2,159), while scoring 16 touchdowns and averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He surpassed 100 rushing yards in all of his Big Sky Conference games and tied for the national high with nine.
5. Kendell Anderson, William & Mary (Sr., 5-9, 200)
After replacing injured All-CAA running back Mikal Abdul-Saboor last season, Anderson broke off six straight 100-yard games en route to first-team all-conference honors. He rushed for 1,418 yards and 16 touchdowns for a Tribe team that earned a share of the CAA title. He runs over tacklers with toughness. As a senior, he should be even better as he benefits from a veteran offensive line.
4. De’Angelo Henderson, Coastal Carolina (Sr., 5-8, 205)
Coastal won’t quite command the FCS spotlight this year as it transitions toward the FBS level with an independent schedule, but “Hop,” as Henderson is nicknamed, will keep reminding people of his game-breaking ways. He’s set the FCS record by scoring at least one touchdown in 26 straight games. The touchdown machine enters his last campaign with 3,479 rushing yards, 4,210 all-purpose yards and 46 scores (42 rushing). Also an excellent pass catcher (73 receptions over the last two seasons), he will command NFL interest.
3. Tarik Cohen, North Carolina A&T (Sr., 5-6, 173)
At last sight, Cohen was rushing for 295 yards and three touchdowns in A&T’s triumph in the inaugural Celebration Bowl. He has surpassed 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first three seasons, totaling 4,031 yards overall with 40 touchdowns (38 rushing). The three-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference first-team selection has 4.30-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He’s also known for being able to catch a football while back flipping.
2. Chase Edmonds, Fordham (Jr., 5-9, 196)
In his first two seasons, Edmonds has been nothing short of unstoppable. He’s gained 3,486 rushing yards, piled up 4,504 all-purpose yards and scored 49 touchdowns (43 rushing), while securing the national freshman of the year honors in 2014 followed by first-team All-America honors last season. He’s gone over 200 yards in a game five times, including a Patriot League-record 347 yards against Lehigh last season. He considered transferring from Fordham after his sophomore season, but has returned to continue his assault on defenses.
1. Kade Harrington, Lamar (Sr., 5-9, 190)
It took only 10 games last season for Harrington to surpass 2,000 rushing yards, and he went on to lead the FCS in total rushing yards (2,092), rushing yards per game (190.2), rushing touchdowns (21) and all-purpose yards per game (213.4). He employs a north-south running style, with a quick burst from defenders, to dominate games. Along with Edmonds, the Southland Conference player of the year shared the FCS single-game high last season with 347 rushing yards (against Abilene Christian). He averaged nearly 7.9 yards per carry while finishing runner-up to Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp as the national offensive player of the year.
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.