San Diego State Football Year in Review: Running Backs

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Credit: USA Today Sports

A look at the San Diego State Aztecs running back position. 

In 2017, SDSU dubbed itself “Running Back U.” The Aztecs had every reason to do so. Donnel Pumphrey was only a year removed from breaking the NCAA record for rushing yards after a 2,133-yard senior year. Rashaad Penny bettered his cousin’s season with 2,248 yards, which was the fifth most in NCAA history. Penny’s senior season rivaled Marshall Faulk’s, Reggie Bush’s, Barry Sanders’, or any other running back in College Football history.

“What we’re getting with our recent success is that we’re getting into homes that we weren’t able to before,” former coach Rocky Long said early in 2017. “And we’re getting similar kids. We have very good young men in our program. We have very few issues and very few problems. They are kids that come here with the right attitude. They want to work hard, they want to get better, and they want to get a degree.”

The living rooms the staff was able to get into because of the success of Pumphrey, and Penny belonged to the current group of running backs in the program. True to Coach Long’s prediction, the running backs have been incredible off the field. The intense competition among the backs could have led to problems within the group; instead, it brought them together.

“They treated me like family,” Byrd told Pro View Networks in an interview this week. “Any running back that comes in, they treat you like family. There’s never beef in the running back room. We all love each other. Even at practice, we’re all competitive. We’re always challenging each other just to do something at practice, and that changes us in the games. It just keeps the fun in football.”

Ultimately, the players are responsible for the brotherhood they have created, but running back coach Jeff Horton deserves credit as well. He has told his players to wait their turn behind those above them on the depth chart for years. Even someone as talented as Rashaad Penny was asked to wait not just behind Pumphrey but also behind Chase Price. Penny’s first two years on campus, he had a total of 63 carries. 268 fewer than Price.

This past season, it was time for Horton to practice what he has preached during his ten-year tenure with the program. Horton was relieved as Offensive Coordinator. Instead of leaving, he modeled his teaching values for a decade and continued coaching at SDSU. Horton’s example inspired his unit’s team-first approach.

On the field, the running backs have been a slightly different story.

“Especially with the shoes we had to fill,” Byrd said. “With Rashaad Penny and Donnel Pumphrey — coming from those guys, the fans expect us to do better.”

Despite their higher recruiting profiles, the running backs had not matched the level of production hoped for when they signed. Saying this does not mean the group has not produced. The Aztecs ranked 32nd in the nation in rushing yards with an average of 199.4 yards per game.

Expecting any group to match the production when Pumphrey and Penny shared a backfield is unrealistic. For this group to meet the lofty expectations of their arrival, they need to match the production of the players who proceeded Pumphrey — Ronnie Hillman and Adam Muema. Each has shown flashes of brilliance — especially Greg Bell last season — but if the school is to recapture its national reputation as Running Back U, it will need more from this talented group.

2020 was one of the more unique years ever. One silver lining for the running back group is an extra year of eligibility. Greg Bell has already announced his intention to take advantage of it by returning for a second senior season. The rest of the upperclassmen among the running back group is also presented with another opportunity.

In 2022, SDSU is scheduled to open the New Aztec Warrior Stadium. Before this year, the juniors were going to miss out on playing in the new stadium, but now with an extra year to play, they will have the chance to play the inaugural season on the new field in Mission Valley.

Running Backs

Greg Bell

Attempts                          Yards                   Average                             TD

113                                     637                      5.6                                      7 (1 receiving)

Finally! Greg Bell got the play for SDSU. Originally committed to the Aztecs out of Bonita Vista High School in Chula Vista, Bell instead went to junior college and the University of Nebraska before transferring back to the Mesa in 2019. A freak eye injury cost him his first season. This past year, his detours behind him, he made his much-anticipated debut and did not disappoint.

The season began without a clear starter, but Bell quickly distanced himself from the other running backs displaying the main characteristic that separates good back from great ones: vision. Bell’s combination of size, speed, and balance is on par with the rest of the talented backfield, but he was the only back who consistently took advantage of cut back lanes. The offensive line did not have to block perfectly for Bell to be successful.

Unfortunately, injuries cost Bell a shot at a spectacular season. During the first four games, he averaged 21.25 carries and 150 yards from scrimmage. He scored six of his seven touchdowns during that span. Injured in the fifth game against Nevada, Bell was forced to miss one game and was limited to only one carry in another. He had only 28 carries for 100 rushing yards in the final four games of the season.

Bell was spectacular enough in the season’s first half to be named to the Mountain West All-Conference Second Team. Having committed to coming back for another year playing for his hometown school, If he can remain healthy, he should be among the favorites for Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year in 2021.

Jordan Byrd

Attempts                          Yards                   Average                             TD

35                                       225                      6.4                                      3 (1 Special Teams)

Jordan Byrd was easily SDSU’s biggest home run threat this season. Byrd had three of the four longest runs for the Aztecs. His four longest runs of the season totaled 176 yards and two scores. The rest of his 31 carries, however, totaled only 49 yards. The dilemma Byrd presents the offensive staff is encapsulated in these statistics.

Over his career, most of Byrd’s touches have proven to be boom or bust. Too many carries where he picks up one or two yards often outweighs the one big gain he has in a game. Thus, he had the fewest number of carries among the four running backs, but his yardage was on pace with the other backs even though he had 20 fewer attempts.

Credit: Mountain West Wire

Byrd was one of the best storylines of the season for his role on special teams.  A week three dropped punt cost the Aztecs a shot at a comeback and a division title. The play, though, was not entirely Byrd’s fault.

“During that week, my coach sent the film to NCAA rules — or something like that,” Byrd said of the gaffe. “And they found out the guy never gave me space to catch the ball, so it should have been a flag, but that’s just how football goes.”

Despite the adversity, or perhaps, because of it, Byrd bounced back to earn second-team all-conference honors as a kick returner. Byrd led the Mountain West with a 31.9 return average.

In 2021, the coaches need to fulfill their promise to find creative ways to get Byrd the ball. He caught seven passes but only had twelve yards on those receptions. Becoming more of a threat downfield will enhance Byrd’s ability in the screen game. If his best plays continue to be handoffs, he simply needs more carries. Jordan Brookshire ended the season with ten more attempts than Byrd.

Chance Bell

Attempts                          Yards                   Average                             TD

56                                       273                      4.9                                      3

Bell was second on the team in carries, yards, and touchdowns.

He did his best work early in the season but faded as the season went on. In the season’s first two games, he totaled more than half of his yardage for the year.

Credit: Go Aztecs

Bell is a hard-nosed runner but lacks the size to compliment his powerful style. Nonetheless, averaging nearly five yards a carry shows Bell is productive when given the opportunity. Like the other reserve tailbacks, however, he was at his best as a complement to Greg Bell and not as the featured back.

In 2021, for Bell to take the next step and seize more carries, he will need to become more elusive.  If Bell is able to run away from more defenders instead of running into them, he should be able to break off long runs, which would make him more of a threat than he has shown in the past.

He has played in 23 games in his career. In 14 of those games, he had at least one carry of ten or more yards, but with all those attempts at a truly game-changing play, his career-long is only 30 yards. Being more of a home run threat would elevate him to the clear number two back behind Greg Bell.

Kaegun Williams

Attempts                          Yards                   Average                             TD

54                                       257                      4.8                                      1

Williams continues to be the most forgotten member of this talented group.

He has only two career games where he has received double-digit carries — the first and final games this past season.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

When given the ball, however, he has produced. Williams possesses a solid 4.28 yards per carry average for his career but has only 95 carries as an Aztec.

Like Chance Bell, Williams is an incredibly powerful runner despite not being a large back.

He possesses good size and elusiveness, which results in lots of good runs, but he has too much of a tendency to seek contact instead of avoiding it, which negates some of his effectiveness.

Williams’ best game of the season was the team’s final game against BYU. He carried 16 times for 92 yards and a score. Perhaps, his late-season success bodes well for an increased role in 2021.

Newcomers for 2021

Jaylon Armstead

(High School Stats) Attempts                 Yards                   Average                  TD

165                                       1230                    7.5                        20 (3 Receiving)

Jaylon Armstead is not technically a newcomer. He was a redshirt freshman this past season but only had one carry for five yards. Like all the scholarship running backs on the roster, the coaching staff gained access to Armstead’s living room because of the success of the previous backs in the program, and like the rest, he turned down a Power Five offer, Arizona State, to come to San Diego.

Armstead had a game in high school — a half really — where he carried five times for 222 yards and five touchdowns. Armstead profiles as a true big back. He is listed at 5’ 11” 235 pounds and could push for playing time if the players in front of him cannot make strides this offseason.

Cam Davis

(High School Stats) Attempts            Yards                   Average                TD

303                                     3065                    10.1                         28 (3 Receiving)

The first commitment from the 2021 recruiting class, Davis committed to the Aztecs back in April. Despite offers from Power Five schools Georgia Tech and Texas Tech, he stayed true to his commitment and signed a Letter of Intent in the early signing period. Davis is from the Dallas/Fort Worth area and joins an impressive list of players from the area who now play for the Aztecs.

Profiling along the same lines as the current collection of running backs, it would be surprising to see Davis earn playing time as a true freshman. Unless Davis finds a role on Special Teams, he will likely use the 2021 season to acclimate to the college game and add muscle to his frame.

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.

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