In the FCS Huddle: Running backs can carry heavy load

This could be the year of the crooked number among FCS running backs.

Some of the best ones have already provided a preview of what could be in store.

Towson's Terrance West rushed for 29 touchdowns as a freshman two years ago.

Indiana State's Shakir Bell pounded Drake for 349 yards - a Missouri Valley Football Conference record - in a game last season.

South Dakota State's Zach Zenner hit 2K last year with a 2,044-yard season.

While plenty of top FCS running backs departed after last season, including another 2,000-yard rusher in Wofford's Eric Breitenstein, it's the high quality of returnees that stands out for the upcoming season.

Add in some of the other staples from the Walter Payton Award Watch List and there will be some NFL opportunities down the line with this year's running backs crop.

Bell, Zenner, West and Sam Houston State's Timothy Flanders make selecting two backs for a preseason All-America team both a no-win and no-loss situation. All four deserve to be there, so there are no right or wrong answers, just great backs to pick from.

Flanders is the compiler in this year's group. He leads all returning backs in career rushing yards (4,234) and touchdowns (55). Bell's 115 yards per game is highest among the returnees.

Northern Arizona's Zach Bauman has the chance to go over 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season, and only injuries last year have kept Delaware's Andrew Pierce from having the same opportunity this year.

Villanova's Kevin Monangai, Stony Brook's Marcus Coker, Northern Iowa's David Johnson, Georgia Southern's Dominique Swope, The Citadel's Darien Robinson, Wagner's Dominique Williams and Fordham's Carlton Koonce are among the other most skilled backs.

The list runs deep, too, with 23 possible returning 1,000-yard rushers (three are quarterbacks) as well as the return of 2011 century club runners like Saint Francis' Kyle Harbridge (injured last season), Montana State's Cody Kirk and James Madison's Dae'Quan Scott.

The balls will still fly often in this age of passing offenses, but that may make the FCS's top returning running backs stand out even more this year.

Catch them if you can.