2014 Big Sky position rankings: Running backs

2014-08-13T23:00:00Z 2014-08-22T17:15:19Z 2014 Big Sky position rankings: Running backsGreg Rachac The Billings Gazette

NOTE: This is the eighth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

The loss of Kristaan Ivory puts a damper of Cal Poly's hopes going forward. Ivory was a returning 1,000-yard rusher and was picked for the preseason All-Big Sky Conference squad, but this week he found himself in hot water over an alleged robbery -- and suspended indefinitely from the team. The Mustangs won five conference games last season, but what happens now?

Even without Ivory, there's a treasure trove of talent returning at the running back position in the Big Sky: Manzanares, Forte, Canada, Johnson, Finney, Bolen ... and several others you don't know but should by season's end. 

TOP 10 RUNNING BACKS

1. GABE MANZANARES, SR., UC DAVIS 2013: 259 car, 1,285 yds, 5.0 avg, 10 TD; 27 rec, 385 yds, 14.3 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: No back averaged more all-purpose yards per game than Manzanares, and only one (NAU's Zach Bauman) had more carries. A JC transfer, Manzanares emerged as a tough runner who took on a heavy workload and kept on ticking. He also proved to be a solid receiver out of the backfield -- a versatile threat. Coach Ron Gould mentored some big-time ground-gainers during his long tenure as the running backs coach at Cal -- Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best among them. Manzanares is Gould's latest protégé. 

2. QUINCY FORTE, SR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 179 car, 1,208 yds, 6.7 avg, 11 TD; 23 rec, 279 yds, 12.1 avg, 5 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: With all the focus on Vernon Adams, Cooper Kupp and an unstoppable passing game, Forte quietly had a Taiwan Jones-esque season for the Eagles. He's just what EWU's opponents need, right? A 1,000-yard rusher to deal with on top of everything else. Forte has never averaged less than 4.7 yards per carry in a season, so he's bound for another productive year. He's not quite built for 200-plus carries, so he gets his yards in chunks. And with Adams, Kupp and Co. returning, the status quo shouldn't change. 

3. JORDAN CANADA, SR., MONTANA 2013: 211 car, 1,062 yds, 5.0 avg, 16 TD; 11 rec, 121 yds, 11.0 avg. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Canada and Travon Van were a killer 1-2 punch last season, although Van struggled through injuries. Van, though, has been working out at receiver during fall camp, and that could mean even more carries for Canada, who ranks fourth in school history in rushing yards and TDs. Canada had six 100-yard games last year as the Griz switched to a pro-style offense, and his number will be called an awful lot again. Assuming a retooled offensive line comes together, another 1,000-yard season shouldn't be too much to expect.

4. SHAWN JOHNSON, SR., MONTANA STATE 2013: 104 car, 609 yds, 5.9 avg, 6 TD; 28 rec, 243 yds, 8.7 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: The Cats rode Cody Kirk pretty hard, and in each of the past two seasons he ailed down the stretch. Johnson, who also returns punts and kicks, will see more carries this year, but the Bobcats might be wise not to put too many miles on him, especially as big games loom in November. MSU has some pretty good running back depth, but Johnson is eager in the No. 1 role. He might not be a 1,000-yard rusher, but Johnson's all-purpose production will be huge. Truly, there's not a more dangerous player with the ball in his hands.

5. NATE TAGO, SO., PORTLAND STATE 2013: 35 car, 216 yds, 6.2 avg, 3 TD; 1 rec, minus-1 yds. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Making up for the loss of D.J. Adams is no small task, but Tago figures to be one of the guys to take those reins in the Vikings' hybrid Pistol offense. Tago (5-11, 215) is similar in size and style to Adams, who led the league with 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago. Tago has certainly shown flashes. Shaq Richard is also someone to keep an eye on. The Vikings rushed for more than 275 yards per game last season, the third-best average in the nation. That'll be tough to match without Adams, but the cupboard is not dry.

6. XAVIER FINNEY, JR., IDAHO STATE 2013: 199 car, 868 yds, 4.4 avg, 5 TD; 29 rec, 177 yds, 6.1 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: ISU's offense took 957 snaps last season, second in the league only to Eastern Washington. And though the Bengals only ran the ball on 39 percent of those plays, Finney still nearly cracked 200 carries and was in the ballpark of 1,000 yards. A junior, Finney has a chance to become a real breakout player this season, even though teammate Daniel McSurdy could get a big share of the workload. Offensive coordinator Don Bailey has said he wants more out of the ground game this year. Finney gives them a great chance.

7. CASEY JAHN, JR., NORTHERN ARIZONA 2013: 56 car, 212 yds, 3.8 avg, 1 TD; 6 rec, 53 yds, 8.8 avg. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: If replacing D.J. Adams at Portland State is tough, how difficult will it be to fill Zach Bauman's cleats at NAU? Bauman rushed for more than 1,000 yards in four straight seasons, cementing his standing as an all-time Lumberjacks legend. But instead of anointing one man to take over, coach Jerome Souers is implementing more of a running-back-by-committee approach. That'll include Jahn, who was Bauman's backup the past two seasons and the only NAU returner to have carried the ball last season. Look for Jahn to lead the NAU pack.

8. BO BOLEN, SR., WEBER STATE 2013: 123 car, 549 yds, 4.5 avg, 5 TD; 27 rec, 203 yds, 7.5 avg. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Bolen returned to Weber State last season after serving an LDS mission in the Philippines the previous two years. The Wildcats' offense was an abject disaster last season, but Bolen still scratched out more than 500 rushing yards. Bolen has been a total workhorse during his time at Weber State.  It's hard to believe, but Bolen came to WSU in 2008 when Ron McBride was the coach and quarterback Cameron Higgins and running back Trevyn Smith were carving up defenses. He'll leave as one of the program's most valuable players.

9. KORI GARCIA, SO., CAL POLY 2013: 54 car, 206 yds, 3.8 avg, 1 TD; 4 rec, 37 yds, 9.2 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: With Kristaan Ivory and Jake Brito currently indisposed, somebody has to step in and handle the load in Cal Poly's dynamic ground game, which -- oh by the way -- ranked No. 1 in the nation last year. Garcia backed up Ivory at slotback in all 12 games last season, and was expected to see more action this year. Now he's likely to see a lot more action. Garcia had a big spring, and there should be no surprises considering the experience he got last season. His production, among others', will be critical for the Mustangs moving forward.

10. JORDAN ROBINSON, SO., SACRAMENTO STATE 2013: 50 car, 159 yds, 3.2 avg, 3 TD; 13 rec, 141 yds, 10.8 avg. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: As Ezekiel Graham battled an ankle injury last year, QB Garrett Safron wound up leading the team in rushing with 492 yards. But it's a new year, and Sac State -- with new coach Jody Sears at the helm -- needs someone new to become the featured runner. Will it be Robinson? There's a good chance. New running backs coach Sammy Lawanson sure likes what Robinson has shown so far in fall camp. Other candidates are Brandon Kellerman, Demetrius Warren, Garrett Steele, De'Jon Coleman, Hunter Rockwell, etc.

*** NATIONAL NO. 1: ZACH ZENNER, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE. No doubt about this one. The indomitable Zenner is looking to become the first running back in FCS history to eclipse 2,000 yards in three straight seasons. The 6-foot, 220-pound bruiser has rushed for 4,529 career yards, which is 2,030 away from the FCS record owned by Georgia Southern's Adrian Peterson.

LAST WEEK: 2014 wide receiver rankings

LAST YEAR: 2013 running back rankings

NEXT WEEK: Quarterbacks

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