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Countdown to kickoff: Austin Peay’s running backs

APSU Athletics Communications

Throughout fall camp, LetsGoPeay.com will take a look at each of the position groups as the Austin Peay State University football team goes through preparations for the 2020 season. In the backfield, Austin Peay will miss the services of one Kentel Williams, but in his place are a combination of old hands and new faces being molded by a new positional coach. The recipe is enticing; the result has a lot to live up to, but the room has the talent to make it work.

By Colby Wilson

APSU Athletics Communications

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Stephen Smith has the energy and the smarts. Austin Peay’s newly-minted running backs coach is bringing both every day, and his guys have fed off that in the lead up to the August 29 start date against Central Arkansas.

And the running back room, more than any other on the offensive side of the ball, is a true blend. Vets. Transfers. Freshmen. Guys who have played and guys still looking for a shot. And with Smith at the helm, everyone gets a brand-new lease on life.

“I feel really good about them,” Smith said. “A lot of them have playing experience, a lot of them have had time in the system. All the guys in the room have made the move for me really easy. They’re smart guys, and you have to be in Coach [Tim] Zetts’ offense.

The names that stand out are Ahmaad Tanner and Lelan Wilhoite, for obvious reasons. Tanner is a known commodity, an Ohio Valley Conference All-Newcomer choice in 2017 who has tallied more than 1,000 career rushing yards in an Austin Peay uniform. Wilhoite seems to be following a Kentel Williams path—he saw brief time as a wide receiver last season before moving to the backfield and averaging more than four yards a carry in limited reps.

Wilhoite saw action in four contests in 2019—thanks to the new redshirt rule, he still has four seasons remaining as a redshirt freshman.

Reps will not be tough to come by this season. With plenty of young guys in the mix for carries, Smith can afford to spread the love around the backfield. Fortunately for him, he has a group both happy to share and quick to pick up the offense.

“It’s not going to be one back doing one thing,” Smith said. “It’s going to take everybody in the room. The course of a season is going to take a beating on you as a running back. All these guys have the versatility to be on the field in a variety of situations.

“There’s a lot of talent in this room. The thing I keep telling them is, you’re one snap away from being the guy. All these guys are great people, they’re attentive, it’s a really good group. I’m not going to be surprised if you look up and everyone in the room has 20 to 30 carries across the course of the season; there’s some serious depth in that room, and I’d say depth and versatility are the two things the room really has.”

CJ Evans’ name continued to come up during our discussion. The true freshman’s commitment and discipline to learning the offense has caught Smith’s attention as someone who can contribute in the near- and long-term.

“From the outside looking in, the offense is complex when you first get here,” Smith said. “You have to see formation and know your protections and passing concepts. The other guys have been inside the system, but CJ Evans has come in and really dedicated himself to learning the offense, to taking great notes in meetings and texting me questions, studying at night.”

Clarksville native Joshua Watch and redshirt freshman Jariel Wilson have displayed flashes during camp that have Smith excited about their long-term viability in the rotation. Watch, who hails from Clarksville High, spent last season at Highland Community College before returning home, while Wilson, the 2018 Class 6A Offensive Player of the Year in Tennessee, looks to make his first mark as a Gov in the coming months.

One unknown that could be the key to unlocking the Austin Peay run game going forward is Brian Snead. The Iowa Western transfer and one-time Ohio State player was a top-100 national prospect out of high school in Florida; as he becomes more acclimated to the offense and the program, how quickly he picks things up could help determine Austin Peay’s backfield fortunes in 2020 and beyond.

“The standard in the running back room is that they didn’t lose one ball last year,” Smith said. “I pride this group on two things: protecting the ball and protecting the quarterback. These guys are athletes, they’re going to break long runs; that’s why they were recruited. But I want to be sure they’re upholding the standards set by Coach [Marquase] Lovings and Coach Zetts.”

ZETTS PERCEPTION: “We’re pretty deep at this spot. Our backs give us a lot of versatility. We can use different footwork, put them in the slot, because they have a lot of ability running routes and pass-catching. The young guys are coming along and learning and have really shown up. We’ve had a lot of growth in that group, and Coach Smith has done a great job getting those guys ready. Give these guys a little bit of room, get the ball in their hands and they can do some really good things with it.”

2020 Returnees / 2019 Stats

Ahmaad Tanner (Sr.) / 13 games, 109 carries, 408 yards, 3.7 ypc, 5 TD
Lelan Wilhoite (R-Fr.) / 4 games, 20 carries, 85 yards, 4.3 ypc
Jariel Wilson (R-Fr.) / Did not appear in 2019

2020 Newcomers

CJ Evans (Fr.)
Brian Snead (R-So.) / Transferred from Iowa Western CC
Joshua Watch (R-So.) / Transferred from Highland CC

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