BY DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Sports Writer
SALT LAKE CITY " The Western Athletic Conference was affectionately known as the "Wacky WAC" for its wide-open offenses and high-scoring games.
Most of that notoriety was because of the pass-happy aerial shows teams put on each week. Defense seemed to be an afterthought for teams.
If you follow WAC football in 2008, you might notice a little shift. Sure New Mexico State quarterback Chase Holbrook " who threw for 3,866 yards and 26 touchdowns last season " returns, but so do the top seven running backs and three of them rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.
"I think it's clear," San Jose State coach Dick Tomey said. "Take Fresno State, take Nevada and take Boise State. Obviously Idaho ran the ball well last year. We have very good players at running back this year.
"Those three have the best running games, but they are all different. Fresno is a little different than Boise, and Boise is a little different than Nevada."
The list is led by Nevada's Luke Lippincott, who led the WAC with 1,420 yards and 15 scores. Idaho's Deonte Jackson, a sophomore, gained 1,175 yards and scored seven times in his freshman season. Boise State sensation Ian Johnson, who was slowed by injuries that forced him to miss two full games last year, also returns.
And, for good measure, throw in Louisiana Tech's Patrick Jackson (950 yards), Fresno State's Ryan Mathews (866 yards, 14 TDs), Fresno State's Lonyae Miller (609 yards) and Boise State's Jeremy Avery (672 yards), and you can see that it won't be the flashy passing games that will garner all the attention this season.
Fresno State coach Pat Hill pointed out that the WAC has three of the top-30 running games in the country, and one of the guys he pointed to was Lippincott.
"Luke runs well," Hill said. "He runs hard. I like him."
Nevada coach Chris Ault constantly raves about Lippincott, who made the move to running back after starting his career as a safety.
"Luke is the centerpiece, no question about it," Ault said. "He does it all."
Lippincott spent most of the off-season working on his flexibility, and said he's as quick as he's ever been.
"I'm the king of the 15-yard run," he said. "I'd get past the line and the linebackers and tackled by safeties. I want to break off some long runs so I can help the team more. I want to make the moves to get past the safeties."
Lippincott hopes players like Johnson and Jackson play well " just not against Nevada. Lippincott said that a guy like Johnson helps bring attention to the conference and its players.
Idaho's Robb Akey was pleased with the success of the 5-foot-9 Jackson, who suffered a high-ankle sprain and didn't miss a game. Jackson was recruited by former coach Nick Holt, but stayed with the Vandals when Akey took over.
"Jackson had a great season," Akey said. "He proved he could handle it (being the main guy). By staying, he showed his teammates the kind of guy he is, and that he believes in what we're trying to do here."
In Mathews, Miller and Anthony Harding, Fresno State has the best corps of backs in the conference. Mathews and Miller can score from anywhere on the field as they proved against Nevada last year. Mathews, who gained 171 yards, had scoring runs of 54 and 67 yards, respectively. Miller had a 72-yard scoring run.
"I like that group," Hill said. "We're as strong as we've ever been. Ryan, Miller and Harding gives us three good running backs."
Johnson's forte is his vision. He is an instinctive runner, who has the uncanny ability to find his opening and explode into the secondary. Like Lippincott, Johnson can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. What probably sets him apart is his ability in the open field.
Hawaii linebacker Adam Leonard is especially impressed with Johnson.
"Ian Johnson is a great running back, but you need a great line to open holes, and that's what Boise strength has been is its offensive line. Ian has the ability to slip tackles. You think you have him stopped for no gain, and all of a sudden he's slipped off you and gained five yards."
"Ian Johnson is a great back," Tech coach Derek Dooley said. "It seems like every team has a good running back."
Jackson might be the sleeper of the group. If Louisiana Tech can find its passing attack this year, it might open up more lanes for him to run through. And Jackson is 100 percent after having surgery to repair a chipped bone in his right toe.
"He was really hobbled all year with a toe injury," Dooley said. "He didn't go through spring practice."
Jackson insists he is ready to go.
"This is the best I've felt since I was in high school," Jackson said. "It had been hurting for some time. It was really tough to cut off of (last year)."
- Contact Darrell Moody at email@example.com or (775) 881-1281