2023 Monmouth vs Towson

Jaden Shirden, Dylan Laube Lead Running Backs To Watch In 2023 CAA Football

Jaden Shirden, Dylan Laube Lead Running Backs To Watch In 2023 CAA Football

Two of the premier running backs in all of college football — Monmouth's Jaden Shirden and New Hampshire's Dylan Laube — return to lead the CAA in 2023.

Aug 9, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
Highlights: Monmouth's Jaden Shirden

Jaden Shirden produced astronomic numbers in Monmouth's first season of Coastal Athletic Association football. When it came time for an encore, there was nowhere the All-American running back would have rather been in 2023 than back with the Hawks on the Jersey Shore. 

"This is a great program at Monmouth, with coaches and a lot of my teammates, " Shirden said. "I love it at Monmouth, so I'm just looking forward to another season with my guys." 

In an age with the most open transfer rules in NCAA history, stars will break out one season and land somewhere else the next. 

Shirden's love for Monmouth is evident in his coming back from a Walter Payton Award finalist campaign to guide the Hawks once again, this time possibly into contention for the CAA championship. 

After an introductory season in the CAA during which it dropped four decisions by 10 points or less, including three in conference competition, Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan said the Hawks adjusted in the off-season to the Coastal's more physical brand of football. 

As for Shirden individually, he cited "running, catching, blocking — just trying to get better at everything, and seek more knowledge of the game" as his offseason focus. 

Considering the caliber of his debut CAA season in 2022, an improved Shirden may well be the front-runner to claim the league's first Payton Award since Villanova quarterback John Robertson in 2014. 

Callahan joked that, "if he carried the ball 20 times a game last year, he's going to carry it 40 this year." 

All right, so the longtime Hawks head man was being facetious there — but not when he said Shirden "makes us go on offense." 

Shirden was electric in 2022, leading the nation with 1,722 rushing yards, despite playing fewer games (11) than some of his nearest competitors - Geno Hess of Southeast Missouri State (1,691 yards in 12 games);  South Dakota State's Isaiah Davis (1,451 yards in 14 games); and Incarnate Word's Marcus Cooper (1,436 yards in 13 games). 

His output wasn't just tops in FCS, but all of Division I football, surpassing FBS-leading ball-carrier DeWayne McBride by nine yards (and 31 fewer carries). 

With an engine like Shirden driving production, it's no wonder Monmouth led the CAA in points and yards per game. 

"Anytime he touches the ball, there's a chance something really good is going to happen," Callahan said. "It's really important that we find creative ways to get him the ball, whether it's handing it to him or throwing to him." 

The same can be said of New Hampshire's Dylan Laube. Similarly, Wildcats coach Rick Santos said last season he looked for ways to get the dynamic back the ball beyond only carries. 

To that end, Laube operated as one of UNH quarterback Max Brosmer's primary weapons in the passing game with 49 receptions — second-most on the Wildcats 2022 roster — and a pair of touchdown grabs. He was the most electrifying returner in college football, as well, running back both a kickoff and punt for scores. 

And, oh yeah: Laube toted the rock a CAA-leading 245 times for 1,205 yards and scored a conference-best 15 rushing touchdowns. 

His combination of versatility and durability resulted in Laube leading the FCS in all-purpose yards with 194.3 per game — more than 22 yards better than the next-most prolific player in the nation — and more than any other Division I athlete. 

A similar season for the reigning co-CAA champion Wildcats should garner Laube plenty of Payton Award consideration. Some of the stiffest competition he'll face comes from within the conference, however, not limited to Shirden, the third-place finisher in 2022.

The Coastal's crop of running backs may be the best any conference has to offer this season, with a variety of standouts and potential breakout performers to know once action gets underway. 

Jalen Hampton, Elon

Jalen Hampton's breakout freshman season played a pivotal role in Elon reaching the FCS Playoffs for just the fourth time, and Hampton became only the second Phoenix to reach 1,000 yards since the program moved up to Division I in 1999. He finished with 1,053 overall. 

"It's awesome," Elon offensive lineman Jabril Williams said of blocking for Hampton. "Jalen's a hard worker. He puts his head down, he runs hard, he runs smart...As an offensive lineman, we love those big games, big years with a lot of yards." 

Expect the yards to keep piling up. 

The Phoenix offensive line is among the most veteran in the CAA, and Hampton's no-nonsense, through-the-tackles rushing style is an ideal complement to the defensively stout approach on which Elon has steadily built the last few seasons. 

Savon Smith, Richmond

A multifaceted approach shaped Richmond's prolific offense under former coordinator Billy Cosh in 2022. That included spreading touches for running back Aaron Dykes and Savon Smith in the run game. 

Cosh is gone, as is Dykes, but now operating in an offense co-coordinated by Adam Ross — whose offensive lines when he oversaw that group for UR were a consistent strength — Smith has an opportunity to establish himself as a true No. 1 back. 

Smith averaged 5.2 yards on his 109 carries and was an X-factor in the passing game with 30 receptions — fifth-most among all Spiders in an air-raid influenced scheme. 

Bronson Yoder and Malachi Imoh, William & Mary 

No team in the CAA ran the ball more effectively than William & Mary at 3,455 yards spread across 581 carries. The Tribe accrued the fourth-most total rushing yardage for the season in all of FCS and the fourth-highest yards-per-carry average. 

The two running backs responsible for a bulk of the production in coordinator Christian Taylor's unique scheme, Bronson Yoder and Malachi Imoh, return to again have defenses chasing them all over the field. 

Yoder established himself as one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the CAA as a freshman back in 2019, and he has grown from direct-snap X-factor to an every-down back. He's one of three CAA running backs to make the preseason Walter Payton Award watch list, along with Shirden and Laube. 

At 1,255 yards on 203 carries with 13 touchdowns, one can see why. 

And Yoder's numbers might be gaudier if not for Imoh's presence — though the William & Mary offense presumably would not be as dangerous if it was just one back handling a vast majority of duties. 

Instead, with Imoh as a potential game-breaker stepping in as the Tribe's change-of-pace back, William & Mary got a whopping 8.5 yards on 85 carries. Imoh showed off his potential as a No. 1, too, going for 128 yards and three touchdowns to bolster a rally at Stony Brook last season. 

Highlights: William & Mary Vs. Stony Brook