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CFF Series - This new MAC RB might just take your breath away in 2023
Another name added to the pre-season VP watchlist...
Like a lil' ponytail, I'm always on the back of your mind
- Trippie Redd, musician
Welcome back to the Pigpen, my friends. We’re headed down to Illinois for today’s profile, and the storyline involves a pattern CFF managers will be familiar with.
When it comes to CFF, the MAC is always on the back of my mind. Many a league winner has come through the Mid-American in recent years, and any CFF manager would be a fool not to pay attention to this league in detail. What’s unique about the MAC is that unlike other conferences, most of the standout players in this league are former transfers. When looking at the last handful of years, a shocking percentage of MAC standouts were former Power-Five (P5) signees. Often arriving with little fanfare, many of these players become household names within the CFF community after just one season.
Today I am following the trend, with NIU’s most recent RB transfer by way of Iowa— Gavin Williams. Under head coach Thomas Hammock’s tutelage, the Huskies have leaned heavy run from day one—so much so that there have been two or more CFF relevant RBs in the same season in years past. Indeed, NIU RB Antario Brown does return to the fold this season, but the man of the hour today could be only one injury away from being the RB1, and — as mentioned above — this is a program that has supported two or more RBs to CFF relevance before. So without further adieu, let’s get into it.
Coaching & System
Current NIU head coach Thomas Hammock has been with the program since 2019. Prior to that, he spent time in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens as the RBs coach from 2014 to 2018. He also spent time as RBs coach at Wisconsin from 2011 to 2013. He did have a brief stint as a play caller when he spent one season as co-OC with the Minnesota Gophers in 2010.
Excluding the COVID year, since taking over the Huskies, Hammock’s program has produced a 1000-yard rusher in two out of three seasons. Current Memphis Tigers RB Jeyvon Ducker did it in 2021, rushing 218 times for 1184 yards and 3 scores. Former Huskie Tre Harbison did it in 2019, rushing 230 times for 1021 yards and 8 scores. You might have noticed Ducker’s abnormally small TD volume in 2021. That was due to former NIU FB Clint Ratkovich, who rushed 104 times for 461 yards and 13 TDs in 2021. Ratkovich was often used near the goal line, and was notorious for stealing TDs from the RBs.
In 2022, the backfield was split between Harrison Waylee (165-899-5) and Antario Brown (110-689-7). Waylee had season highs of 42, 24.3 and 23.4 points vs. Ball State, Toledo and Eastern Michigan, respectively. He rushed for over 100 yards in three out of 11 games, including a 230 yard performance vs. Ball State. He finished the season averaging 13.74 FPG. Brown on the other hand averaged 11.26 FPG, with season highs against Eastern Michigan (20.6), Toledo (16.1) and Miami of Ohio (15.7). He rushed for over 100 yards just once all season, but he did also come close with 97 against Miami, Ohio.
During Hammock’s time with the Ravens, he only had one 1000-yard rusher in Justin Forsett who rushed for 1266 yards and 8 TDs on 235 carries in 16 games (2014). His last two seasons in Baltimore were two-headed (2017) or three-headed committees (2018). The 2017 season had one RB carry the rock 212 times, and the other 153 times. In 2018, three RBs carried the ball over 110 times, with the lead runner receiving 147 carries.
Hammock’s time at Wisconsin was pure bananas. In 2013, the Badgers had two RBs go over 1400 yards—Melvin Gordon (206-1609-12) and James White (221-1444-13). In 2012, it was all-VP selection Montee Ball with a gargantuan 356 carries for 1830 yards and 22 TDs. The RB2—James White, rushed 125 times for 806 yards and 12 TDs. 2011 was much of the same, Ball rushed 307 times for 1923 yards and (brace yourself for this) 33(!!!!!) TDs. Holy cow. White, as the RB2, rushed 141 times for 713 yards and 6 scores. That being said, we’ve seen during that era of Wisconsin football that it was a program notorious for dealing heavy volume to its backs regardless of who the coaches were.
The OC—Eric Eidsness, has been with Hammock at NIU since 2019. Prior to joining the Huskies, coach Eid OC’d the FCS program South Dakota State from 2012 to 2014. His 2014 program had a 330 carry player in Eagan, MN’s finest—Zach Zenner, who carried the rock 337 times for 2061 yards and 22 TDs. Crikey. No other RB came close to that carry volume that season. In 2013, it was Zenner again rushing 320 times for 1938 yards and 22 TDs. In 2012 it was—yup, you guess it, our boy Zenner rushing 300 times for 2078 yards and 13 TDs. So we know what coach Eid’s preference is. But maybe Zenner was simply just that dominant.
As mentioned, 2022 was a split backfield. In addition to Waylee and Brown, Jaiden Credle (now at MTSU), rushed 72 times for 288 yards and a score. Waylee and Credle have since moved on, and Williams figures to offload some of the inherited workload from Brown. Clearly this is a program run by two mad men with histories of rotund pigs in their backfields, so of course my interest is piqued whenever a former P5 player makes the trip down.
RB Gavin Williams — 5’11, 216
Mr. Williams joins the Huskies by way of the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Altoona, Iowa native spent the last three seasons with the BIG-10 program, but failed to crack the lineup in any meaningful way. His best statistical season was in 2021, when he averaged 3.4 FPG, carrying the rock 65 times for 305 yards in 13 games. Remarkably, he has yet to score his first collegiate TD. That figures to change sooner rather than later in the MAC; at this level of competition, Williams should be able to put in work. The opportunities should be there also, with the aforementioned Waylee and Cradle now gone. Splitting carries with Brown seems a likely outcome, but he’ll be one injury away from asserting himself as the RB1 of a program that is run by nothing but volume pig creators (VPCs).
Even in splitting carries as the RB2, the Huskies will (probably) run the football so much that Williams will have his moments. That’s not a great formula for standard re-draft leagues, but in a bestball format? I’m interested.
Here’s an excerpt from a report on NIU’s spring game:
Junior running back Antario Brown is the top running back on the depth chart after the departures of Harrison Waylee and Mason Blakemore. Brown will most likely be the starting running back for the start of the season and is excited to get started.
“It feels great man, after two years of playing behind a guy or two, just knowing, going into the season being the guy,” Brown said. “I feel like preparation stays the same as the two years before. I’m ready for it all.”
Brown scored the first touchdown of the showcase, a 12-yard catch and run on a pass from Hampton.
Redshirt junior running back Gavin Williams scored a four-yard touchdown on a jet sweep. Williams scored again on a hand-off by redshirt freshman quarterback Nevan Cremascoli, his second rushing touchdown of the showcase.
Junior running back Billy Dozier scored the last touchdown of the scrimmage, a six-yard touchdown run. Dozier’s touchdown was the fourth of the scrimmage for NIU running backs.
No surprises there—Brown will be the RB1 going into 2023, but I suspect there will be at least two runners involved, as showcased by the scoring distribution in the spring game.
It’s pretty much determined that Brown is RB1 to open the season, so Williams is likely at best RB2. That doesn’t mean he can’t be CFF relevant, though.
We haven’t seen Williams do much of anything so far in his career. His career high is 16 carries for 98 yards and 2 receptions for 14 yards vs. Kentucky in the 2021 bowl game. That’s a good sign if he can produce at that level when given opportunities, but this profile is — for the most part — a projection. Most P5 players who transfer to the MAC generally come in with little-to-no production, so this is not a glaring concern.
According to the C2C ADP calculator, Williams has a CFF ADP of 134. I’m not sure what to make of that, I don’t think he is being taken on average in the 11th round of CFF drafts. Rather, I suspect he’s going undrafted in most formats. I recently picked up Williams in the 38th round of a 24 team league (so, like the 900th pick if my math is correct…). Granted this was a dynasty format, so the standard valuation of players was slightly off, even still, I’m pretty sure he is available for free well into the deep rounds of drafts. In my opinion, Williams could be a value in bestball formats. I’d steer clear in a regular set-up, unless the league was very deep.
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