Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/1/12
SLEEPERS – NON-BCS RUNNING BACKS

“Sleeper” could be the most overused word in College Fantasy Football.  That being said we all love to hear it. We look at the word as basically meaning "guys we want to get on our teams" and break it into a few categories:
 
1 – “OUR GUYS”– These are guys we’ve got a good feeling for, and want to get on our teams. They are guys who usually possess a lot of potential upside and/or we trust to get it done week in and week out for us.  We call these “Our Guys” and our plan is to consider reaching for them a round or two earlier than normal to make sure they're on our squad
 
2 – UNDERVALUED - A player who we feel is somewhat “Undervalued”.  That could mean he's a 2nd round pick, but we think his stats would prove worthy of a 1st. Usually it just means that we are higher, and in many cases considerably higher on this player than the general public.
 
3 – LONG SHOTS- The classic definition of the word Sleeper… Long shots that most people have barely heard of yet we think have a shot to make something happen. These guys are usually reserved for the latter half of the draft or your last few roster spots as long shots. They also could be guys that are young and we think could be on the verge of a breakout season.  These are high risk players that are not worth burning a mid-round pick on.
 
Our goal is to get as many of these guys on our teams as possible, knowing full well that many won't pan out. Probably half or even more won't work out, but if we get five of these guys and can cash in on two or three of them, we’ve probably landed ourselves a couple mid-to-late round steals.
 

Kendrick Rhodes, Florida International (Our Guy)
 
Rhodes made a name for himself during the 2011 season while splitting time with Darriet Perry. Although Perry was the veteran, Rhodes made a big impact becoming the team’s leading rusher with 1,159 yards and eight rushing scores.

Now Perry is gone and 2012 looks like Rhodes’ time to emerge as a feature back. He is the most talented player coming back from last year’s squad as the offense will miss the presence of wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and quarterback Wesley Carroll.
 
You can expect the coaches to lean on Rhodes with the turnover in the passing game and an offensive line that returns four of it’s five starters from last year. Although Hilton is gone there are plenty of other experienced receivers that could step up in his absence.

Normally you would expect a Sun Belt school to host a brutal non-conference schedule. However, that’s not the case for Florida International as the non-conference slate features Duke, Akron, Central Florida, and Louisville.

David Fluellen, Toledo (Undervalued)
 
Fluellen had to share the spotlight in the Toledo backfield last season with seniors Adonis Thomas and Morgan Williams. When Fluellen was given the chance to be featured more in the gameplan, he did not disappoint.

During a five game span in the middle of the 2011 season he averaged 16.2 fantasy points per game. During that stretch he only averaged 10.8 carries and two receptions a game. It is safe to assume his production should only rise in 2012 now that Thomas and Williams have graduated. Although Toledo likes to use more than one running back, it will be hard for the coaches not to feature Fluellen heavily in the offense.
 
The offense will return both co-starters from their dual QB system (junior Terrance Ownes and senior Austin Dantin). The loss of wide receiver Eric Page to the NFL is a blow to the passing game, but Bernard Reedy and Dwight Macon look ready to fill in Page’s shoes. Perhaps the biggest area of concern that will affect Fluellen is the offensive line where only two starters return.

The schedule shapes up very nicely for Toledo. An opening weekend match-up at Arizona and an October 20th home game with Cincinnati are the only trouble spots. All the other games on the schedule serve up tasty match-ups for fantasy owners.
 
Kerwynn Williams, Utah State (Undervalued)
 
There is one trend that we are focusing on this offseason - don’t overlook the underrated talent in the WAC. The conference was gutted and the competition level has plummeted. This is excellent news for fantasy owners.

Utah State is one of the top remaining teams in the weak conference and they must replace the talents of running back Robert Turbin who was a top 10 fantasy back in 2011. While Turbin possessed NFL talent, Williams is no slouch himself. He is known for his speed and big play ability in the return game. Now a senior, Williams finally gets his time to tote the rock.
 
The Aggies return both of their top two quarterbacks from 2011. Chuckie Keeton started the season but after getting injured Adam Kennedy stepped in and led the team to a bowl appearance. Matt Austin is the only returning starter at receiver, and only the left side of the offensive front is going through change unfront.

Outside of a week two match-up with Utah in the Holy War, and a week three game at Wisconsin; the cupcake march will take over. With teams like Southern Utah, Texas- San Antonio, and Texas State on the slate; you can see why we are saying - don’t overlook the underrated talent in the WAC.
 
D.J. Harper, Boise State (Undervalued)
 
Harper has had a turbulent career at Boise State. In 2009 he averaged 16.33 fantasy points a game over the first three games of the season. Then he when down with a knee injury and was lost for the rest of the year.

2010 was a lost season as Harper continued his knee recovery. He finally made it through an entire season without a major injury in 2011, racking up 557 rushing yards and nine touchdowns as a back-up. Now it looks like 2012 will be Harper’s best chance to become the workhorse back if he can avoid the injury bug.
 
Harper will have three offensive line starters coming back from the 2011 offense. While Joe Southwick must try to fill in the shoes of departed legend Kellen Moore under center, he will have some experienced receivers to throw the ball to (although there is no go-to stud).

Outside of an opening game at Michigan State the schedule does shape up nicely, especially in the second half of the season when Southwick and the revamped offense should get rolling.
 
Hunter Lee, Louisiana Tech (Undervalued)
 
The Louisiana Tech offense looks to finally be hitting its stride as they enter year three under coach Sonny Dykes. The end of the 2011 season showed promise as new players emerged as playmakers.

Lee started to make a name for himself as starting running back Lennon Creer battled injuries. When Lee carried the ball a minimum of ten times he averaged 15.83 fantasy points per game in 2011. Although Tech ranked 70th in the country in rushing offense, much of that had to do with a young offensive line and Creer’s inability to produce while playing banged up.
 
The line comes into 2012 with far more experience as four of the five starters are back. Lee looks to carry a larger role in the offense now that Creer has moved on. Quarterback Colby Cameron is poised for a good season and he has a very experienced group of wide receivers led by explosive play maker Quinton Patton.

The departure of Hawaii, Nevada, and San Diego State from the WAC to the Mountain West has made the schedule very favorable. As we stated earlier - don’t overlook the underrated talent in the WAC. There are only three games to worry about: road tilts with Illinois and Virginia, and a neutral site game with Texas A&m in Shreveport.

Storm Johnson, Central Florida(Long Shot)
 
Johnson started his college career as a high profile signee at the University of Miami. But off the field troubles and disagreements with a new coaching staff led to Johnson leaving “The-U.”

After sitting out 2011 he is now eligible to hit the field for the Knights and fantasy owners are anxious to see what Storm can do. He will be entering a crowded backfield with established seniors Latavius Murray and Brynn Harvey coming back. The pair combined for 1,123 rushing yards and 11 rushing scores in 2011.

The fact that neither back was able to establish themselves as a stud has many thinking that Storm could step in and steal the show if given enough carries.
 
The running back position is not the only crowded one for UCF. Jeffrey Godfrey started 2011 as the starting quarterback, but Blake Bartles emerged as the season worn on. Add in Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert and . The offensive line will be going through change as they look to replace three starters from last year’s squad.

A week two match-up at Ohio State and a week five home game with Missouri are the only rough patches on the schedule. The playoff stretch is a smooth one with Marshal, SMU, UTEP, Tulsa, and UAB wrapping up the season.  
Tony Knight, Nevada (Long Shot)
 
Knight’s journey started with him originally committing to North Carolina State out of high school. After coming to Nevada he redshirted his first season and now looks to take over the coveted running back position as a redshirt freshman.

Knight has a blend of size and power that could do wonders in the Pistol offense. His biggest threat for playing time is senior Stefphon Jefferson, the Wolfpack's most experienced ball carrier. It will be interesting to see whether head coach Chris Ault opts for experience or sheer athletic ability in deciding between these two.
 
The rushing duo of Knight and quarterback Cody Fajardo could make a deadly tandem for Mountain West defenses to have to gameplan around. Brandon Wimberly returns at wide receiver is back after a gunshot injury sidelined him for the 2011 season. Nevada will also have talented JUCO WR Nigel Westbrooks in the mix this fall.  He's poised for a breakout season.

The season opens with a trip to California and a home game with South Florida. Look for Nevada to be more competitive with these schools than most people would think. Nevada then has a juicy stretch of games with Hawaii, Texas State, Wyoming, and UNLV before the last five game stretch. Four of the five final games are more difficult but not “unplayable” fantasy match-ups.
 
Adam Muema, San Diego State (Long Shot)
 
San Diego State was blessed with the talents of Ronnie Hillman at the running back position the last two seasons. His departure to the NFL has left the door open for someone to pick up the 311 available carries left in his wake.

Muema had moments in 2011 where he impressed on the field. He will be the front runner to win the starting job, but he must keep Walter Kazee from eating into his carries. If he can avoid a split rep situation with the speedy Kazee then Muema has a chance to fulfill his sleeper status.
 
Although quarterback Ryan Lindley has departed, the Aztecs will have Oregon State transfer Ryan Katz filling in under center. Katz will have some nice targets to throw the ball to in All-Mountain West tight end Gavin Escobar and USC transfer wide receiver Brice Butler.

Although the Aztecs open up the season at Washington, the Huskies will be breaking in a new defensive system that is replacing the worst unit in school history. After the season opener, the remaining difficult match-ups will be trips to Nevada on October 20th and Boise State on November 3rd.
 
Antonio Andrews / Keshawn Simpson, Western Kentucky (Long Shot)
 
Bobby Rainey had led the nation in rushing attempts the last two seasons, and he leaves some very big shoes to fill. Andrews and Simpson are the top candidates to take over the running back position. Most see Andrews with a slight lead in this position battle, but whoever wins the job may not expect the same workload that Rainey received.

Both backs are similar in talent level and its hard to see the coaches not utilizing both backs in some fashion. Add in the fact that talented freshman Anthony Whales hits campus in the fall, and it may be very difficult for one guy to emerge with a heavy load of carries. The Western Kentucky backs are high risk if you’re looking for a guy that could become a work horse back.
 
But there is plenty of experienced talent to surround these backs. Four of last year’s starters on the offensive line are back, and quarterback Kawaun Jakes will be starting for his third straight season.

The good news for Andrews and Simpson is that they can open up against Austin Peay before having to face mighty Alabama and Kentucky. These backs will need to avoid the injury bug as they face the tough week 2-3 patch. Once they can get through those two SEC games the schedule looks nice with Southern Miss being the only game left before hitting the tasty Sun Belt defenses.
 
Nathan Jeffery, UTEP (Long Shot)
 
If you drink the Kool-Aid that head coach Mike Price is serving then its time to start believing in the UTEP running game again. Price has high confidence in Jeffery, making the bold statement, “The Miners have a running back!”

Jeffery will be taking over the position after the top three rushers from last season have departed. He suffered a minor knee injury in the spring but the coaches expect him to be 100 percent by fall camp. The injury and UTEP’s inability to provide a consistent running game year-in and year-out do add considerable risk to selecting Jeffery on draft day.
 
But there is some hope that Price’s comments on Jeffery will reflect in a season where he feeds his running back like he did in 2009. That season Donald Buckram came out of nowhere to carry the ball 259 times for 1,594 yards and 18 scores on the ground. His 28.75 fantasy points per game were impressive and that type of potential production and four starters back on the offensive line might warrant spending a late round draft pick on Jeffery.

It does look like you’ll have to be patient to find out if Jeffery has breakout potential with three difficult match-ups early. UTEP plays Oklahoma at home in week one, travels to Ole Miss in week two, and travels to Wisconsin in week four.
 
 

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