The 2006 opponent position preview marches on. With the quarterbacks done, now let's hit the running backs.
GEORGIA TECH - Tashard Choice. 2005 stats: 117 attempts, 513 yards, 6 TDs. New starter.
The transfer from Oklahoma, Tashard Choice was Tech's 2nd leading rusher last year and now gets the starting job to himself. He's a big back who is just as likely to try and run over a defender as around him. He also started against Miami last year, who at the time was the #1 defense in the country, and pounded out 84 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. He'll be a solid first test for the new Irish linebackers. Depth: Complementing Choice's size is the speed of junior Rashuan Grant, who also can be dangerous receiving out of the backfield. A solid change of pace back with the more physical Choice. Loyall Gause and highly touted freshman Jamaal Evans round out the running back depth chart. Starting fullback Mike Cox didn't run the ball last year, but was a very solid blocker and a decent receiving target with 13 receptions for 72 yards.
PENN STATE - Tony Hunt. 2005 stats: 174 attempts, 1080 yards, 6 TDs. Returning starter.
Another tough, move-the-pile running back, Tony Hunt is the type of player who defines "workhorse". Big and strong at 230 pounds, Hunt will wear down a defense and his 6.0 yards per carry average from last year is very impressive. He also pulled in 20 receptions and was the team's leading receiver in 2004, so he has the hands to be a receiving threat. Depth: Austin Scott hasn't quite lived up to his billing, but is still a dependable running back and a solid backup for Hunt. Like Hunt, Scott is a tough runner who rushed for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in last year's Orange Bowl when Hunt was injured. Rodney Kinlaw adds another experienced running back to the mix and is a bit quicker than both Hunt and Scott. Starting fullback Brandon Snow is one of the better fullbacks that the Irish will face and while he doesn't get to run the ball much, he's a fantastic blocker.
MICHIGAN - Michael Hart. 2005 stats: 150 carries, 682 yards, 4 TDs. Returning starter.
Michael Hart battled injuries all last year but if he's healthy when the Wolverines travel to South Bend, he's my pick as the top running back that the Irish will face. A starter since his freshman year, Hart has plenty of experience and has an innate ability to always get positive yards and turn something out of nothing. He also has one of the best traits you can hope for in a running back: he holds on to the ball. In 432 career carries, he has only lost one fumble. All that stands between him and a great junior year is his health. Depth: Kevin Grady did a solid job subbing for Hart last year, but didn't quite live up to the high expectations placed on the high school star. Now he's lost weight to get faster and should make an excellent 1-2 punch with Hart. Freshman speedster Carlos Brown enrolled early and did nothing but impress. The fullback position will be manned by one of three converted players. Obi Oluigbo switched from linebacker in 2003 and while he hasn't played much, might be the starting fullback in 2006. Converted defensive lineman Will Paul or converted linebacker Brian Thompson, both of whom started games at fullback last year, will fight Oluigbo for the spot.
MICHIGAN STATE - Javon Ringer. 2005 stats: 122 attempts, 873 yards, 5 TDs. Returning starter.
Javon Ringer took off as a freshman last year and led the Spartans in rushing, even though he wasn't even technically the starter. Lightning-quick, Ringer's 6.7 yards per rush average is testament to his ability to get by the first defender, and no opponent on the 2006 Irish schedule is a better threat to break off a long run. At 5'9" he's not the biggest back, and he'll have to prove he can handle the poundings that come with being the featured carrier, but an off-season in the weight room should help in that regard. Depth: The thunder to Ringer's lightning is junior Jehuu Caulcrick who at 245 pounds is one of the biggest backs the Irish will face. He's plenty experienced with over 200 career carries and his 5.4 career yards per carry average is impressive. AJ Jimmerson redshirted last year and will provide a quality third back.
PURDUE - Kory Sheets. 2005 stats: 104 attempts, 601 yards, 10 TDs. New starter.
Kory Sheets is a dangerous running back who excels at running outside the tackles. He had the advantage of having Jerod Void on the team last year to get the tough yards up the middle, so he'll have to prove he can take over that role. But when the play is to the sidelines, Sheets has more than enough speed to turn the corner and beat defenders to the endzone. An honorable mention Freshman All-American last year, Sheets is also a threat out of the backfield and should build on his 13 receptions last year. Depth: The only other running back on the roster who carried the ball last year, Anthony Heygood is more of a fullback and may see some of those between the tackle runs if the coaches don't want to put Sheets in that situation. Purdue brought in JUCO player Jaycen Taylor for the spring and he put up 84 yards on 13 carries in the Boilermaker spring game. He will probably be the backup running back to Sheets.
STANFORD - Anthony Kimble. 2005 stats: 66 carries, 244 yards, 2 TDs. Returning starter.
Anthony Kimble was moved from wide receiver to running back prior to the 2005 season and started the first 6 games of the season for the Cardinal. But then he was injured and lost his starting spot to J.R. Lemon. Kimble's 3.7 yards per carry average isn't very good, but it was good enough to be the best average out of all of Stanford's running backs. Kimble also added 14 receptions and 2 touchdowns catching the ball out of the backfield, which isn't a surprise given his former position at wide receiver. Depth: Jason Evans was Stanford's leading rusher last year, even though he only managed the same number of yards as Travis Thomas (248). The Cardinal were awful at running the ball and rotated carries between a number of running backs, which kept everyone's numbers low. Despite being the leading rusher, Evans never started a game and didn't get a carry in the Notre Dame game. Depth: Running back depth isn't really there, although freshman Toby Gerhart owns the California high school career rushing record. Starting fullback Nick Frank is back for another year and provides a decent short yardage runner when he is used. He also is able to flare out and catches passes, as he had 17 receptions last year. Behind him is all-everything high school recruit Emeka Nnoli.
UCLA - Chris Markey. 2005 stats: 110 attempts, 561 yards, 3 TDs. New starter.
Chris Markey didn't have much to do playing behind Maurice Drew last year, but he had a great bowl game where he ran for 161 yards (although Northwestern did have the one of the worst run defenses in the country). Of more importance might be the 1,223 all-purpose yards that Markey totaled last year (561 rushing, 231 receiving, 383 kick return, 48 punt return). That kind of versatility will help Markey make an impact all over the field. Depth: Helping Markey out will be Kahlil Bell, who put up 316 rushing yards on 52 carries last year as UCLA's 3rd string running back. Now the 1-B to Markey's 1-A, Bell should see the ball a lot more and join Markey to form a talented Bruin running back duo. Michael Pitre is the returning starting fullback and mainly is a blocker but he should see the ball in the occasional short yardage situation.
NAVY - Adam Ballard. 2005 stats: 109 attempts, 668 yards, 6 TDs. Returning starter.
Navy doesn't really have a feature back, as they had 6 running backs with 40 or more carries in Paul Johnson's spread option attack, but Adam Ballard is the big name player in the Midshipmen backfield. The fullback bulldozed his way for 6.0 yards per carry once he got the opportunity late in the season, and he put up 488 yards in his three starts. Depth: Joining Ballard are two fast returning slotbacks. Reggie Campbell averaged 9.0 yards per carry over the season and scored 5 rushing touchdowns in Navy's bowl win over Colorado State. At only 5'6", he isn't big enough to fight off tackles, but he is hard to catch. Trey Hines is the team's fastest player, but injuries have kept him from running the ball too much. Speedy Karlos Whittaker was dismissed from team, so Shun White and Georgia Tech transfer Zerb Singlton will be the backup slotbacks. Last but not least, Matt Hall was actually starting at fullback over Ballard before tearing his ACL against Notre Dame. If healthy, he'll add more depth to a stable full of talented backs.
NORTH CAROLINA - Ronnie McGill. 2005 stats: 130 attempts, 530 yards, 5 TDs. Returning starter.
Ronnie McGill missed the first five games for the Tarheels last year due to injury, but still ended up leading the team in rushing and touchdowns. He also led the Tarheels in rushing as a freshman. Still, with 337 career carries and 1,654 yards he is definitely a veteran running back. Now he just needs to show he can be the feature back and stay healthy. Depth: Barrington Edwards started the season when McGill was out and notched 455 yards and 2 touchdowns on 114 carries. The LSU transfer will give the Tarheels an experienced backup to McGill. Justin Warren, redshirt freshman Richie Rich, and four true freshman, including Anthony Elzy, give the Tarheels a very deep stable of running backs.
AIR FORCE - Jacobe Kendrick. 2005 stats: 166 attempts, 532 yards, 6 TDs. Returning starter.
The Air Force wishbone attack produces plenty of yards on the ground, yet no player, save QB Shaun Carney, produced more yards than fullback Jacobe Kendrick. At 6'0" 230 pounds, Kendrick has good size and quick feet, although injuries did keep him on the sidelines for a few games last year. If he can stay on the field, he's a very dependable fullback with the speed of a halfback. Depth: Also returning to join Kendrick in the Air Force backfield are Chad Hall and Justin Handely. Both are speedy, but both also check in around 5-8 180 pounds. Still, they both have plenty of experience and Hall is Air Force's leading returning receiver. Ryan Williams is the backup fullback to Kendrick and actually was third in the team in rushing attempts last year.
ARMY - TBD.
Army was hit hard by graduation and the "running back by committee" approach just might be the name of the game. (You know things are rough when you can't find a good action picture of any of the candidates on the internet). Ricky Lay, who has switched from quarterback to wide receiver to running back, has size at 6'4", but only got one carry in the Army spring game, which is never a good sign for a future starter. Depth: If Lay or converted linebacker Michael Herndon doesn't get the call first, it will probably fall to one of four sophomores. Jamal Robinson just might be the starter by the time the Black Knights play the Irish but there is a lot for the small (5'7" 178 lbs) sophomore to work on. He is quick and shifty, but Coach Ross suggested he really needs to work on his hands. Sophomores Wesley McMahand, Jerry Jones, and Tony Dace round out the completely green depth chart. Starting fullback Mike Viti returns and his 4 rushing attempts last year are the most of any running back on the roster.
USC - Chauncey Washington. 2005 stats: ineligible. New starter.
No team loses more at running back than the Trojans, who must make do without Reggie Bush and Lendale White. Replacing them is likely going to fall to Chauncey Washington, who has finally been cleared to play after being academically ineligible his first two years at Southern Cal. Washington is certainly a talent and was one of the most impressive players during the 2005 spring game, but will need to show to the staff that he's able to shake off the rust of sitting out the past year. Depth: Ryan Powdrell switched over from linebacker and had a solid spring. At 250 pounds he is more of a fullback than running back. Starting at actual fullback is Brandon Hancock. Built like a professional bodybuilder, Hancock is more than simply strong; he's got good hands and is a decent threat running the ball. Desmond Reed, who injured his knee against Notre Dame's long grass, is on the path back to being a threat that averaged 7.2 yards per carry last year. Michael Coleman is the only other running back besides Reed who got some carries last year, but hip surgery kept him out for the spring. Rounding out an extremely deep, though inexperienced, depth chart are the five highly-recruited running backs that signed with the Trojans. Stafon Johnson, Emmanuel Moody, C.J. Gable, Stanley Havili, and Kenny Ashley might not all still be at running back by the November showdown with the Irish, but odds are one of them will be making a significant impact at running back.
2006 Opponent Running Back Analysis and Ranking.
Before writing this up, I figured that the Irish were facing a decent crop of running backs but I didn't really realize how much talent and experience will be running at us this year. There are no superstar types, outside of Michael Hart who should get a decent amount of pre-season hype. Yet there are plenty of experienced running backs, a majority of which fall into the so-called "big back" camp, and eight of the starting eleven running backs on the 2006 schedule totaled over 500 yards rushing last year. With a slew of new linebackers on defense (including a smaller-than-normal middle linebacker in Mo Crum) these big backs may pose a challenge pounding on the D for 25+ carries per game.
Another benefit for the returning backs is experience in the finer points of the position, especially in pass-blocking. Some of these guys, like Tashard Choice, Ronnie McGill, Tony Hunt, and Jehuu Caulcrick aren't potential All-Americans, but they will be better at picking up the blitzing linebacker than a rookie. With all of the concerns about the ND defense generating a better pass rush, having experienced and strong running backs staying in to block is going to present a nice obstacle.
So, how do they all compare? Once again keeping in mind that I'm weighing production, experience, and overall team depth (as opposed to fuzzier things like coaching systems or potential), here's my take on the 2006 running back units. As we did with the QBs, Phil Steele's running back rankings are in parentheses (he ranked 63 running backs) .
1. Michigan - Experience, talent, and depth. A great group of running backs led by Hart (#6).
2. Penn State - Two solid runners in Hunt (#19) and Scott and an all-conference fullback.
3. Michigan State - Caulcrick (#58) has the size and Ringer (#37) the speed to keep defenses on their toes.
4. Navy - Have a better running back corp than USC for at least the first week of the season.
5. USC - Like at QB, tons of potential, but very little in the way of production....so far.
6. UNC - McGill (#46) is a bruiser and the bench has experience (Edwards) and potential (freshmen).
7. UCLA - Two quality well-rounded replacements for Maurice Drew.
8. Purdue - Sheets (#54) is one of the fastest backs the Irish will face. Not much proven depth.
9. Georgia Tech - Choice is a tough runner and Grant adds some speed.
10. Air Force - Plenty of experience back. No real stars, but dependable veterans.
11. Stanford - No real threats. An average collection of college running backs.
12. Army - Looks like running back by committee to start the season.
Friday, July 21, 2006
The 2006 opponent position preview marches on. With the quarterbacks done, now let's hit the running backs.