First, a random examination of top running backs and their numbers. (My ranked order is at the bottom of this post.) Plus, style comparisons.
Wayne Taulapapa, Punahou, 5-11, 185, So.
53 attempts, 329 yards, two touchdowns, 109.7 yards per game, 6.2 yards per carry.
Two of their three opponents were elite teams: Mililani, Helix (Calif.). He had a monster 30-153 game against Helix, a CIF powerhouse. He didn’t start when the season began, but it’s clear that he’s capable of filling that role. Even if he comes off the bench when Kotoni Sekona returns from injury, Taulapapa will make an impact as the more fluid and elusive of the two. Pupule comparison: He reminds me of … Chris Johnson, when CJ was in his prime.
Adam Noga, Saint Louis, 5-10, 180, Sr.
37-328-4, 82 ypg, 8.9 ypc. Also has 5-91-0 receiving.
Two of their four opposing defenses were elite/near elite: Kahuku, Kamehameha. KS limited him to 4 yards on 7 carries. He had his share of injuries last year (and took a brutal hit/personal foul away from the ball against Kamehameha), but when healthy, he’s incredibly difficult to stop in the open field. His combination of burst/acceleration, cutting ability and breakaway speed are phenomenal. Pupule comparison: Terry Metcalf, the great RB for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1970s who was great on swing passes, super burst inside, and a terrific returner. If Noga can stay healthy, my first instinct for style comparison is obvious: Barry Sanders.
Brandon Kahookele, Kamehameha, 5-6, Sr.
98-699-5, 139.8 ypg, 7.1 ypc. Also has 7-36-1 receiving.
Faced two stellar defenses (Farrington, Saint Louis). STL limited him to 18-61-1, but he rushed for 200 yards against FAR and 244 against IOL. He has a knack for finding a useful crease and exploiting it for yardage. His O-line has helped, of course, by creating some massive lanes this year. Pupule comparison: I want to say Emmitt Smith for durability, endurance and north-south running, but there’s probably a better comparison out there.
Jordan Ross, ‘Iolani, 5-8, 164, So.
62-561-10, 112.2 ypg, 9.1 ypc. Also 4-41-0 receiving.
Leilehua limited him to 18-76-0. Kamehameha limited this sophomore to 17-48-1. As explosive as he is once he hits the line of scrimmage, we have yet to see how much damage he can do as a pass catcher at the varsity level. Pupule comparison: Darren Sproles (the Kansas State version).
Vavae Malepeai, Mililani, 6-0, 190, So.
73-486-9, 121.5 ypg, 6.7 ypc.
26-139-2 vs PUN, 22-117-2 vs WAIN. Very impressive numbers. He runs with a ferocity and supreme explosion. Like Ross and Talaupapa, Malepeai is only a sophomore. It’s hard to argue against him as the most consistently productive back against upper-level defenses. Pupule comparison: He actually reminds me of Talaupapa (and vice versa), but what really stands out is the physicality. Style, I’m leaning toward Marcus Allen. Go look him up, kids.
Ikaika Piceno, Leilehua, 5-8, 170, Jr.
25-239-3, 59.8 ypg, 9.6 ypc. Also 9-142-1 receiving.
Coach Nolan Tokuda was right about Piceno’s breakaway speed. The threat of it is a key component of many of the things the Mules can do offensively. But his productivity has varied (10-28-0 vs. Campbell, 5-6-0 vs. Waianae). Where he’s really dangerous is in open space, which is why they’ve thrown to him some this season (five receptions, 33 yards against Waianae). Of course, his ability as a kick returner is invaluable. He returned a kickoff 98 yards for a TD against Campbell in a 28-21 win.
Jemery Willes, Waianae, 5-10, 165, Sr.
66-386-5, 96.5 ypg, 5.8 ypc.
He missed the Mililani game (ankle), but returned against Leilehua (18-96-1) and helped the Seariders to a big 39-21 win. Willes is already approaching last year’s season total. In 2012, he shared backfield duties with the bulldozer, Alakai Kealoha. The biggest difference so far is yards per carry: 3.9 in ’12, 5.8 in ’13. He’s still not a passing target at all, but his value as a ballcarrier is tremendous to the Seariders.
Triston Pebria, Kapolei, 5-7, 180, Sr.
42-263-3, 83.3 ypg, 5.6 ypc.
A hamstring injury derailed him and he didn’t play against Mililani, which turned out to be the only loss of the season so far. More than half of his yardage came against D-II Pearl City. Since then: 16-36-0 against McKinley, 7-39-0 against Waipahu and 17-70-1 against Aiea. Aiea is one of the better run defenses in the league. If his hammy keeps healing up, the numbers will come.
Polikapu “P.J.” Liua, Kahuku, Jr.
41-259-3, 64.8 ypg, 6.3 ypc. Also 5-102-0 receiving.
It’s not common for a fullback to get more than 10 touches per game, but the Red Raiders have even found ways to pass the ball to the burly junior.
Soli Afalava, Kahuku, So.
71-363-4, 90.8 ypg, 5.1 ypc
Stats-wise, he’s not in the conversation with the elite sophomore running backs (Ross, Malepeai, Talaupapa), but that could easily change in another game or two. Afalava is running behind a young offensive line, with a first-year starting QB and still has these lines: 19-88-1 (Saint Louis), 18-120-1 (Kaimuki), 14-100-1 (Moanalua).
Ina Teofilo, Kamehameha-Hawaii, 6-1, 200, Sr.
64-370-1, 92.5 ypg, 5.8 ypc
He wears No. 27 and, at times, looks like Eddie George at first glance. Teofilo is fairly strong, but is more of a finesse runner who gobbles up chunks of open field quickly. Against ‘Iolani (18-93-0), I was impressed by his acceleration, but he was brought down consistently by defensive backs who were 50 or more pounds lighter. He’s raw physically and could develop into a far more aggressive, punishing ballcarrier. I’ll put it like this: Kahuku and Farrington have often converted linebackers into running backs, and those guys brought a certain physicality to the offensive side. Teofilo doesn’t have that consistent physicality. Yet.
Bobby Lum, Hawaii Prep, 5-8, 210, Sr.
66-432-5, 108 ypg, 6.5 ypc
Allyn Spencer? Derrick Honda? HPA has featured some brilliant running backs in years past. Could Lum be the best of them? At this point last year, he had 302 yards after four games — he didn’t play against ‘Iolani. He also played a weaker schedule last year, when the BIIF had separate schedules for D-II teams. This year, he’ll see Hilo, Waiakea, Keaau. There is no Kohala, no Ka‘u on the slate. He didn’t have massive numbers against those now-gone teams; in three games (a fourth game was forfeited), he only carried the ball 19 times. But one foe still on the menu is defending BIIF D-II champ Konawaena, a team that he dominated (28-221-1).
Reggie McFadden, Kauai, 5-8, 150, Sr.
Stats not available.
He ran for 98 yards on 23 carries and scored the game’s lone touchdown in a 6-3 win over Kapaa last weekend.
Devin Preston, Waiakea, 5-10, 185, Sr.
109-574-5, 114.8 ypg, 5.3 ypc
Through mud and rain, Preston keeps producing. Without an effective passing attack (Waiakea passers have a below-average passer rating of 90.84), the weight of the offense falls on the run game and Preston.
Makena Johnston, Kalaheo, 5-9, 150, Sr.
49-569-7, 113.8 ypg, 11.6 ypc. Also 5-33-0 receiving.
On paper, the stats are gaudy. But it’s been a roller-coaster ride for the speedster. Johnston is not big, not extremely physical, but is an ironman who plays linebacker in addition to running back. The Mustangs like to put him in the slot from time to time. He’s not the kind of back who will carry an offense for an entire drive, grinding out one carry after another. He’s more of a back who will break off a big gain now and then. Against Kalani, he scored on an 88-yard TD run, but for the rest of the game, he was a man with a bull’s-eye on his back. He didn’t get many touches, and got a little dinged up defensively. They ask a lot of him and he gives his best, but it’s taking a toll. Pearl City limited him to 39 rushing yards and one catch.
It would be interesting to see what he could do at the next level as a slotback.
Sanele Lavatai, Farrington, 5-10, 174, Sr.
33-261-5, 65.3 ypg, 7.9 ypc
He carried the ball a total of 20 times in the first three games, then broke out with a 157-yard, three-TD performance against Kailua. He’s a converted linebacker who, as a running back, hits the hole quickly and never tries to get cute with extra moves and cuts.
Kotoni Sekona, Punahou, 6-0, 237, Sr.
An injury early in the game at Helix (Calif.) has kept him off the field recently. He was strong against Mililani (15-96-1) and is a major component in Punahou’s sledgehammer attack. He’s made the transition from tight end to fullback to running back. It’s probable that Talaupapa will snag more handoffs from this point, but having Sekona share the load, possibly play some fullback, and run pass routes is a unique asset for the Buffanblu. And he might be the best short-yardage ballcarrier around.
Mana Reis, Kapolei, 5-11, 190, Sr.
35-152-1, 38 ypg, 4.3 ypc. Also 14-161-2 receiving.
Reis’ value to the ‘Canes has more to do with his versatility than outright rushing yardage. He is arguably their most effective pass catcher.
Fitou Fisiiahi, Kaiser, 6-0, 231, Sr.
31-325-7, 81.3 ypg, 10.5 ypc. Also 1-9-0 receiving.
I normally won’t post part-time running backs here, especially if they play another position full time like Fisiiahi. But he is such a force on both sides, and though he splits time as a running back with Thomas Leong, Fisiiahi is the Cougars’ leading rusher. After a combined 11 carries in the first two games, Fisiiahi has carried the ball 20 times in the past two. He has committed to play football at Oregon State as a linebacker, but his explosiveness and physicality with the football — he used to play international rugby — may keep the door open to other positions at the next level. Pupule comparison: Montee Ball (Wisconsin).
Thomas Buntenbah-Leong, Kaiser, 5-11, 185, Sr.
21-259-4, 64.8 ypg, 12.3 ypc. Also 3-85-1 receiving. One KR for TD (94 yards).
Leong is listed as a DB, but has brought a big weapon to the offense. Though he’s a threat out of the backfield, he had all three of his catches for 85 yards and a touchdown against Kalani. He did not touch the ball on the offensive side against D-I Campbell.
Ishmil Scott, Moanalua, 5-11, 198, Sr.
22-102-3, 54.9 ypg. Also 3-61-0 receiving.
His return is an important part of Na Menehune’s bid for a playoff berth. He missed the first two games before returning against McKinley. His role is crucial, but it’s been a big difference from last season, when he averaged nearly 12 carries per game in Moanalua’s first four contests. With Moanalua throwing more than ever, his production as a running back probably won’t top last year (102-549-3), but his skill as a receiver will likely be vital.
Tobias Powell, Radford, 5-9, 170, Sr.
31-339-5, 67.8 ypg, 10.9 ypc. Also 9-174-1 receiving.
The transfer from Maryknoll never played football for his old school’s team (Pac-Five), but he might be relishing the move. He’s had big games (13-185-4 against Kalani) and tough games (6-16-0 vs. Kaiser), but he is one of several lethal weapons in the Rams’ offense. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is a big factor, and not surprising considering his first sport, basketball. He was a sixth man for the Spartans hoops team that played in the D-I state final last season. His future, however, may well be on the gridiron.
Mathias Tuitele-Iafeta, McKinley, 5-11, 235, Sr.
33-160-6, 40 ypg, 4.8 ypc. Also 2-39-0 receiving.
He is a stout middle linebacker with a major motor. His effectiveness on offense is more as short-yardage, red-zone scorer, though he did go for 96 yards and two TDs in a win over Moanalua. Pupule comparison: Ironhead Heyward (U. of Pittsburgh/Steelers).
Mahvan Tau, Waianae, 5-9, 210, Sr.
51-360-3, 72 ypg, 7.1 ypc. Also 1-3-0 receiving.
Tau has emerged as the new Alakai Kealoha, last year’s power fullback. Tau has 233 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games, which means defenses won’t be able to key solely on running back Jemery Willes.
Randon Tuitama, Kaimuki, 5-9, 165, Sr.
38-310-2, 77.5 ypg, 8.2 ypc. Also 1-4-0 receiving.
Despite a roster lacking depth and size, the Bulldogs have found a way to produce offensively thanks in part to Tuitama, nephew of former standout wide receiver Tito Tuitama. His biggest game was against Waialua (9-194-2) a nonconference matchup. In other words, had Kaimuki opted to move down to Division II, Tuitama would probably be posting a string of 100- and 200-yard games. He did battle for 51 yards on 11 carries against Kahuku.
Kainoa Simao, Kamehameha, 5-6, Sr.
He saw some action at RB earlier in the season, but Kahookele has become the go-to back on almost all snaps. Simao has tremendous acceleration and breakaway speed, which is utilized on kick returns. He sat out of the ‘Iolani game with a shoulder injury, but said he will return soon.
Dusty Flores, Baldwin, 5-7, 160, Sr.
67-393-3, 98.3 ypg, 5.9 ypc
It always takes me a moment or two to adjust when I see Baldwin’s individual stats. It’s been a long time since they were the aerial circus with Jordan Helle at QB and one of the Nakamura brothers pulling in spirals. This year’s Bears have a balanced offense and Flores is at the heart of it. He managed just a 14-27-0 line against Saint Louis in the season opener, but has been productive since.
Christian Whitehead, Lahainaluna, 5-6, 170, Sr.
37-376-7, 94 ypg, 10.2 ypc
It’s not the norm for the Lunas to have an individual player average nearly 100 rushing yards per game since their modified Wing-T offense is incredibly balanced and unpredictable. But Whitehead is making the most of his opportunities for the unbeaten Lunas.Tough to gauge Whitehead and the Lunas, who haven’t played a D-I team outside the MIL. Big test this weekend when they face Baldwin.
(I know it’s impossible to catch every RB who has played well so far this season. So here is a list of more.)
Austin May, Campbell, 5-9, 168, Jr.
33-262-3, 65.5 ypg, 7.9 ypc
Got to see him play once a few weeks back and he was impressive. Not a heavy-load kind of running back, but when he gets the ball, it’s north-south and he gets from point A to point B quickly. Strong and packs a good load on tacklers. The departure of Pebria didn’t hit the Sabers quite so bad thanks to May.
1. Brandon Kahookele, Kamehameha
2. Vavae Malepeai, Mililani
3. Adam Noga, Saint Louis
4. Wayne Talaupapa, Punahou
5. Jordan Ross, ‘Iolani
6. Jemery Willes, Waianae
7. Soli Afalava, Kahuku
8. Fitou Fisiiahi, Kaiser
9. Bobby Lum, Hawaii Prep
10. Devin Preston, Waiakea
11. Makena Johnston, Kalaheo
12. Ina Teofilo, KS-Hawaii
13. Mahvan Tau, Waianae
14. Ikaika Piceno, Leilehua
15. Randon Tuitama, Kaimuki
Summary: Noga is probably the most talented and versatile at this position in terms of what he can do with the ball. For now, though, Kahookele and Malepeai have performed the most effectively against top competition. The fourth spot goes to Taulapapa, who has performed at an elite level against top defenses (Mililani, Helix). Ross at No. 5 could easily change with more and more touches as a pass catcher.
Do you have RB candidates in mind for Pupule’s list? Nominate them via e-mail at email@example.com or reach me at Facebook.