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Six from Mountain West named to Maxwell Award watch list

Is 2016 the Year of the Running Back in the Mountain West?

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Nevada vs Colorado State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If the Maxwell Award watch list, given annually to the college player of the year, can tell us anything, it’s that 2016 might be a big year for running backs throughout the Mountain West.

Of the conference’s six names, five figure to be the primary ball carriers for their teams. Nevada’s James Butler, for instance, is the man in Reno after Don Jackson’s departure. In 2015, Butler finished fourth in the MWC with 1,345 rushing yards and scoring ten touchdowns.

Brian Hill received a lot of attention as Wyoming’s workhorse last year, but that didn’t stop him from racking up 1,631 yards in his sophomore campaign. With a little more stability at the other skill positions in Laramie, it isn’t out of the question his numbers improve even more in his third year with the Cowboys.

Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols had a breakout 2015, as well, leading the Mountain West with 20 touchdowns while finishing fifth with 1,335 rushing yards. He also played a key role in the Broncos’ passing game, leading the conference’s running backs with 51 catches and 460 yards while contributing another six receiving scores.

Jacobi Owens, meanwhile, has been a steady presence for the Air Force Falcons. He’s one of just two MWC running backs to have gained 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons, topping out at 1,096 yards in 2015 for the Mountain division champions.

The other running back to achieve that feat, San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey, was the conference’s most dominant runner last year as a junior. He finished seventh in the FBS with 1,635 rushing yards and scored 17 touchdowns for the Mountain West champions, and also added twenty-eight catches for 416 yards for good measure.

Lastly, Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien had his ups and downs last year as the conference’s freshman player of the year, but he was still the conference’s best quarterback after completing 63.6% of his throws for 3,350 yards with 20 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions. Rypien is one of just 15 sophomores to be named to the watch list.

It figures to be a steep climb for any of the conference’s playmakers, however, as two of last year’s Maxwell Award finalists, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, return for another run at the hardware. Former Alabama running back Derrick Henry was last year’s Maxwell winner.