STAR-BULLETIN / 2007
Ian Johnson of Boise State and Solomon Elimimian of Hawaii are the WAC preseason players of the year.
This ain’t your daddy’s WAC
The conference has long been known for passing and finesse, but that could change
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SALT LAKE CITY » The aerial circus has left town.
Everybody knows football is a cyclical game. But if one thing ever seemed a constant, it was the WAC's image for having the ball in the air more than in the hands of a running back.
Coinciding with the departure of run-and-shoot guru June Jones and his star pupil, Colt Brennan, that's changing for at least one season. The league's top nine rushers from a year ago return in 2008, and the loop's highest profile defenders are UH linebackers Solomon Elimimian and Adam Leonard, members of the century-tackles club.
"Just looking at our team alone, we have the depth," said Nevada's Luke Lippincott, who led the WAC in rushing last fall. "I've heard the same about other teams' situations. Boise, Fresno. I hope that brings some national attention to the running back position in the WAC."
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SALT LAKE CITY » Smashmouth has never been associated with Western Athletic Conference football, other than a few tired renditions of the tune "All-Star" by school bands.
That, however, has changed.
There are plenty of whacks in the WAC now. All of a sudden, hard-nosed running backs and the linebackers who collide with them are the high-profile players in what had long been considered the most pass-happy conference in college football.
Boise State running back Ian Johnson was voted the preseason offensive player of the year. Hawaii linebackers Solomon Elimimian and Adam Leonard were one and two in the voting for the defensive honor. They are among the six defenders returning this fall who posted at least 100 tackles last year.
All nine of last year's leading rushers are back this season, plus guys like San Jose State's Yonus Davis and Hawaii's Leon Wright-Jackson. Davis was one of the WAC's top runners in 2006 and was hurt last year, and Wright-Jackson is a potential game-breaker.
What's happening in the league better known for quarterbacks going all the way back to Steve Young and as recent as last year with Colt Brennan?
"It seems like every team you play has a good runner," Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley said. "(The dominance of passing is) one of the myths. It's been a great marketing tool about this wide-open league we have. But people don't realize how physical this league is.
"Even Hawaii last year. That was not a finesse football team. I think you have to run the ball and you have to play physical."
San Jose State coach Dick Tomey said there's some irony involved; offenses that spread the field and throw the ball create opportunities for the running backs.
"There are many, many good players at running back in this league. This league is a contradiction in many ways," the former UH coach said. "It's wide open and people spread out, but it's also a league where you have to run the ball well."
STAR-BULLETIN / 2007
Linebacker Adam Leonard is among six returning WAC defenders who recorded at least 100 tackles last season.
Elimimian, headed into his fourth year as a starter, said the WAC has become more bruising since he was a freshman.
"It's definitely changed from pass-happy the past two or three years. It's more smashmouth and there are so many prolific running backs coming back," he said.
He cited Johnson as the best of the bunch.
"He's done a lot for this conference. He's a staple of the WAC."
Nevada's Luke Lippincott led the conference with 1,420 yards on the ground in 2007. Idaho freshman Deonte Jackson was next with 1,175 and Johnson third with 1,041.
"It shows the league ain't one-dimensional," said Louisiana Tech's Patrick Jackson, who was fourth last season with 950 yards in a time-sharing system. "We have a stable of running backs; one goes out, another goes in."
Utah State coach Brent Guy preaches the basics of hard-nosed, relatively conservative football. He just hasn't had the personnel to make it work with the Aggies, who are 6-29 in his three seasons.
"Teams that win in this league are running the ball, with the exception of Hawaii. If you can't stop the run, you can't stop anything. We have to do that on offense and we have to stop the run," Guy said.
But even Warriors coach Greg McMackin said UH will run more, passing first to set it up. That's why Hawaii will not be in the shotgun as often, unlike last season when Brennan was the focal point of the attack.
Lippincott said balance is the key to any successful game plan, and believes Nevada has it.
"Take out one player in our offense, two others step up," he said. "Defenses can't focus on one player in our offense. It just unleashes another beast."