The University of Southern Mississippi has seen its share of good running backs during the 2017 football season.
University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Spencer Brown. University of Kentucky’s Benny Snell. North Texas University’s Jeffrey Wilson. Louisiana Tech University’s Boston Scott.
Each of those backs posted 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Each scored at least eight touchdowns.
But USM’s defense may be facing as big a challenge as it has all season Wednesday afternoon at the 41st annual Walk-On’s Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La, when the Golden Eagles (8-4) take on Florida State University (6-6).
FSU freshman running back Cam Akers, a Clinton High School product who was the 2016 Gatorade Player of Year in Mississippi after leading the Arrows to Class 6A football state championship, has been one of the main cogs in the Seminoles’ offense this season.
“Every week we see a good back, but he’s very talented,” USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. “A true freshman and he’s one of the playmakers, for sure. Rushed for 1,000 yards or right at it. He runs powerful, he’s very fast and he can take it the distance. We’re going to have to tackle extremely well.”
Per FSU football’s policy of not permitting freshmen players to interview, Akers was unavailable for comment.
Akers put up eye-popping numbers playing quarterback at Clinton High School, where he threw for 8,140 yards and 78 touchdowns in three seasons, while rushing for 5,103 yards and 71 touchdowns in four years. As a senior, he threw for 3,128 yards and 31 touchdowns and rushed for 2,105 yards and 34 scores.
Appearing in all 12 FSU games this season, Akers netted a team-high 930 yards and seven touchdowns on 181 carries,, averaging 77.5 yards on about 15 carries a game. He also caught 15 passes for 102 yards.
The 5-foot-11, 213-pound Akers posted four, 100-yard games over FSU’s final nine games of the season, including a career-high 199 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Syracuse University on Nov. 4.
He rushed for 121 yards in FSU’s loss to the University of Miami on Oct. 7, the followed with 115 yards and a touchdown in a win over Duke University the next week.
In win that clinched a postseason spot for the Seminoles, Akers rushed for 118 yards and two scores in a weather-postponed game with the University of Louisiana-Monroe on Dec. 2.
“He’s just an outstanding talent,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “He was the Mississippi player of the year last year. He’s a guy who has been a tremendous playmaker for them. He’s a heckuva football player, just a talented young man, who has been a real leader for their football team this year.”
And Akers is not the lone weapon in FSU’s running game arsenal. Jacques Patrick, a 6-3, 231-pound hammer of a running back, has averaged 5.8 yards a carry this season, rushing for 687 yards and six touchdowns on 118 carries.
All told, FSU averages about 151 rushing yards a game.
“No. 9 (Patrick) is a huge back,” Pecoraro said. “We’re going to have to be sure that we are really good at tackling that day and swarming the football, swarming the ball, so that the next guy can get there and make (the tackle). That’s going to be huge.”
USM ranks 25th among Football Bowl Subdivision programs against the run, allowing 132.2 yards a game on the ground. The Golden Eagles have held five opponents to less than 100 yards rushing in a game, and four more were limited to 171 yards or less.
But USM also has been gouged at times this season.
Brown became just the 11th player to run for 200 yards against a Golden Eagles’ defense, setting a UAB freshman rushing record with 209 yards in the Blazers’ 30-12 victory.
Wilson went for 138 yards and three touchdowns in NTU’s 43-28 victory. Scott had 106 yards and a score as USM pulled out a 34-27 in double overtime. Rice University running back Nahshon Ellerbee ran for 153 yards and four touchdowns though the Owls fell 43-34.
Pecoraro said the Golden Eagles are aware of what they are in for Wednesday
“It’s going to be challenge,” he said. “Offensive line-wise, I think they are coached extremely well. Really, the whole team is coached extremely well. We’re going to have our hands full, for sure.”
USM senior defensive tackle Rod Crayton said containing Akers may be the key to the game.
“He’s one heckuva player,” Crayton said. “He’s probably the star player and just being a freshman. But if we can take him (away), we take (away) the team.
“I feel like he’s one of the best backs we’ll play, so we’re going to have to come to play and we’re definitely going to have to do what our coaches tell us to do to be successful in the game.”