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Returning MAC Running Backs of 2023, Ranked
Samson Evans and Jaylon Jackson crack my top 10 returning RBs list entering 2023.
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Top 10 Returning MAC Running Backs
#1 Marquez Cooper, Ball State (formerly: Kent State)
Career stats: 30 games, 582 att., 2,813 yards (4.8 avg.), 29 TD; 19 rec., 203 rec. yards
Marquez Cooper is simply incredible talent. He may not be the biggest guy on the field at 5’6, 184 lbs., but he can be a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands. He’s not the kind of small back that shies away from getting tough yards up the middle either, which I think is what truly separates him from other players that try to play the running back position at his size.
Of all running backs coming back to the MAC this season, Cooper leads the field in snaps played (734), rushing attempts (582), and yards (2,813), and is tied for the MAC’s career lead in rushing touchdowns scored (29). According to Pro Football Focus, he laps the field in career rushes of 10+ yards (86), yards after contact (1,667), and missed tackles forced (142).
After rushing for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with Kent State, he’ll be carrying the rock for Ball State, which lost its First Team All-MAC running back, Carson Steele, to UCLA in the transfer portal. Losing him stinks, but it’s got to be a really good feeling for Ball State to be able to replace him with another First Team All-MAC player.
#2 Samson Evans, Eastern Michigan
Career stats: 28 games, 373 att., 1,684 yards (4.5 avg.), 29 TD; 40 rec., 246 rec. yards
Samson Evans was a steady presence for EMU’s rushing attack in 2022. Evans’ 1,166 rushing yards on the year was the program’s first four-digit mark since Darius Jackson in 2015. Evans led the MAC with 15 rushing TD last year, and had 731 yards gained after contact — second-most of returning backs. According to PFF, Evans also returns with the second-most 10+ yard rushes from last year (29, Cooper led with 43).
For better or worse, Evans has taken some beatings as EMU’s bell cow. Evans, who transferred to EMU after his freshman year at Iowa in 2019, had double-digit carries in just five games from 2020-2021, then had seven games where he carried the ball at least 20 times in 2022. The responsibility, I’m sure, feels good for Evans, but 124 carries in two years vs. 249 carries in the third year probably feels differently on the body.
If EMU played its cards right with its recent roster additions, maybe Evans can have an improved season in 2023, even if that leads to fewer touches.
#3 Sieh Bangura, Ohio
Career stats: 16 games, 234 att., 1,171 yards (5.0 avg.), 15 TD; 32 rec., 294 rec. yards, 2 rec. TD
Sieh Bangura has what it takes to be the next star running back to shine from the MAC. The 6’0, 200 lbs. running back out of Bowie, Md. was the youngest of the five MAC backs to hit 1,000 rushing yards last season (1,078). Reaching another MAC title game would certainly help improve his national recognition, and there’s no reason to think the reigning MAC Freshman of the Year can’t help Ohio get back to Detroit this year.
Bangura’s talented enough to have a big season on a lesser team, but Ohio’s great ability to stretch the field with its aerial-efficient offense should give this running back an even better chance to maybe improve on last year’s marks.
#4 Antario Brown, Northern Illinois
Career stats: 19 games, 191 att., 1,227 yards (6.4 avg), 12 TD; 1 rec., 7 rec., yards
When Thomas Hammock was hired by NIU to re-establish the program’s ground game, it seemed like he’d be the go-to coach for aspiring running backs trying to make it big in this conference. However, the two stud running backs from the 2020 signing class — Harrison Waylee and 2021 MAC Freshman of the Year Jevyon Ducker — are both gone from the team via transfer. Ducker left last year for Memphis, and Waylee is now with Wyoming.
Antario Brown is just one of three returning running backs on NIU’s roster.
Of the 10 running backs listed in this article, Brown’s the most green, too. Just 123 snaps played last year; 212 career snaps. But of all the players on this list, Brown returns with the highest rushing average from last year (6.26 — 17th nationally). Brown’s breakout season can also be spelled out with some PFF advanced stats. Of returning MAC RBs with at least 100 carries last year, Brown is one of four players to average at least three rushing yards after contact per carry (3.08) along with Toledo’s Jacquez Stuart (3.05), Miami’s Keyon Mozee (3.06), and Bowling Green’s Jaison Patterson (3.28). Brown had only 14 rushes went for 10+ yards, which isn’t super eye-popping, but let’s also remember how one-dimensional of an offense NIU became last year. Everybody knew Brown was going to get the ball when he was on the field (123 snaps, 110 rush attempts), but he still ran through defenders for a MAC-leading rushing average.
#5 Jacquez Stuart, Toledo
Career stats: 34 games, 187 att., 1,061 yards (5.7 avg), 5 TD; 22 rec., 140 rec. yards
Stuart became the starting running back for Toledo, surpassing Micah Kelly on the depth chart as the go-to guy for normal downs, while Maryland transfer Peny Boone came in to be the team’s short-yardage back.
For all I’ve had to say about Brown’s breakout year in the advanced stats categories, Stuart’s resume isn’t any less impressive. His speed shows up with the chunk runs (10+ yards) with 24 total — Stuart’s 17.9% rate of chunk runs per carry (134) is the best of any RB listed in this piece.
Stuart might not be a bell cow RB for Toledo because that offense has so many playmakers to use that he might not ever need to be asked to have that responsibility. There’s no guarantee that Stuart will even be Toledo’s leading running back this year, Kelly could always re-take the top spot on this roster spot, but Stuart’s clearly a good talent to have on the field.
#6 Terion Stewart, Bowling Green
Career stats: 12 games, 107 att., 707 yards (6.6 avg), 9 TD; 3 rec., 10 rec. yards
Welcome back Terion Stewart!
Stewart was a big-play making running back for the Bowling Green Falcons before he 1. missed three games in 2021 to injury and 2. missed all of 2022 due to academics. Stewart pulled out of the university last year, but is back and ready to play in 2023.
Stewart’s shown that he’s every bit of explosive and impactful in the run game as anybody else we’ve talked about so far, and he didn’t have to suffer any terrible hits last year. I can’t wait to see this guy make big plays happen again this season, because he might end up being the most underrated guy on this list.
#7 Ron Cook Jr., Buffalo
Career stats: 39 games, 265 att., 1,217 yards (4.6 avg.), 8 TD; 45 rec., 494 rec. yards, 1 rec. TD
Ron Cook Jr. is one of three returning MAC RBs with at least 400 career snaps played (438), and has appeared in the most games of the field. A versatile back that’s come up through a coaching change and got to practice alongside Jaret Patterson still has plenty to offer. Hopefully he stays healthy for the full season this time around.
#8 Mike Washington, Buffalo
Career stats: 16 games, 173 att., 757 yards (4.4 avg.), 8 TD; 23 rec., 135 rec. yards, 1 rec. TD
Washington had a fine season in 2022 on the stat sheet, but the advanced stats show that he might’ve been a little too easy to bring down compared to his piers. His 14 missed tackles forced last season is the lowest mark of any RB mentioned so far, and same can be said for his big-play runs (11 total, 7.33%). Still, Washington managed to get 625 yards and 7 touchdowns when upright.
#9 Jaylon Jackson, Eastern Michigan
2022 stats: 13 games, 90 att., 398 yards (4.4 avg.), 2 TD; 13 rec., 127 rec. yards
Jaylon Jackson was a nice surprise for Eastern Michigan through the transfer portal in 2022. Jackson’s smaller (5’8, 165 lbs.) and faster than Evans, his teammate with receiver-quality hands, too. Jackson’s inanely dangerous in open space and reminds me a lot of Dri Archer, who was a MAC star for Kent State just 10 years ago.
#10 Clyde Price, Akron
2022 stats: 99 att., 309 yards (3.1 avg), 7 TD; 31 rec., 139 rec. yards, 1 rec. TD
Clyde Price came to Akron from Kansas State to help jump-start the Joe Moorhead era. I won’t hold too much of Price’s numbers against him because it’s hard to measure what a running back at Akron during a coaching change should play up to. Price still managed to score eight times on offense with 31 receptions out of the backfield. Price was on the field for 133 plays and either received a handoff or caught a pass all but 3 times last year. Still, per PFF, he forced 21 missed tackles last year, and did so at a higher rate (0.21 MTF/rush) than Evans of EMU (0.18).