Tuesday, August 11, 2009

2009 Opponent Position Preview: Running Backs | by Pat

On to the next position in our look at the various opponent position depth charts. With the QBs covered, here are the running backs. In years past, I tried to stick to listing one starter for each team. This year, in the case of the few opponents who split carries between a few different backs, I listed the main contributors and their 2008 stats.


Vai Taua (#57). Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 235 carries, 1521 yards, 15 TDs.

Only 7 runners in the nation ran for more yards per game last season than junior Vai Taua's 117.0. A tough, physical runner at 5'10" 225 pounds, Taua averaged an impressive 6.4 yards per carry in 2008. The kind of back that wears down a defense, Taua failed to score a rushing touchdown in only one game last season. When the team needs a few yards, look for Taua to get the call. Depth: Pairing up with Taua is the player who was ahead of him on the depth chart until hurting his knee in the second game of the season last year. 6th year senior Luke Lippencott led the team and conference in rushing in 2007 and was on his way for a repeat until shelved for the season with torn ligaments in his knee. Now back on the field, Lippincott gives Nevada their third 1,000 yard rusher along with Taua and Kaepernick. If he's fully healed from the knee injury that cost him the 2008 season, he will be a potent combination alongside Taua.


Brandon Minor (#31). Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 103 carries, 533 yards, 9 TDs.

Despite a wrist injury that affected him all season long, senior Brandon Minor was still Michigan's leading rusher last season. Presumably healthy now, he should see the bulk of the carries in the wake of freshman Sam McGuffie's transfer. A predominately north-south runner, Minor is very physical and is the kind of back that tries to run through tackles rather than around them. He technically only started four games last year, but has enough career experience to be considered a returning starter. Depth: Senior Carlos Brown is a faster compliment to Minor, but has missed games throughout his career due to injury. If he can stay healthy, he'll get plenty of carries. Behind Brown is a fairly deep depth chart that, while young, is full of athletic talent and speed. Sophomore Michael Shaw spent time injured and playing in the slot, but he's back at running back and recovered from postseason surgery. The one to watch out for is freshman Vincent Smith. An early enrollee, the 5'6" scatback impressed everyone who watched him during spring ball and ran for two touchdowns in the spring game.


Edwin Baker. Freshman. New Starter.
2008 stats: N/A

It's a wide open race at Michigan State in the battle to replace Javon Ringer. Ringer took over 90% of MSU's rushing attempt last season, leaving no obvious heir apparent. That opens the door for incoming freshman Edwin Baker to take the job. It's probably only a coin flip if the former Top 100 recruit actually holds the job all season long or even starts at all, but the fact that he's still somewhat considered a favorite after the others held spring practice might say a bit about his competition. What helps is that the 5'11" 205 pounder is physically ready to play already. His biggest challenge will be learning the playbook. Depth: Coming out of spring practice, redshirt freshman Caulton Ray and redshirt sophomore Ashton Leggett were named co-starters, so if Baker is beaten out, it will likely be by one of these two. The 5'9" 195 pound Ray hasn't played a snap yet either while Leggett only had 6 carries last year in his first season of college football. At 5'11" 230 pounds, Leggett provides a bit more heft to the position. Freshman Larry Caper, a physical runner like Baker, is another newcomer expected to push for time right away. Rounding out the deep but inexperienced group of runners fighting for the starting spot are redshirt junior A.J. Jimmerman and redshirt sophomore Andre Anderson.


Jaycen Taylor (#60). RS Senior. New Starter.
2008 stats: Torn ACL. Did not play.

It will be hard for Purdue to replace Kory Sheets, but there is a surprisingly deep depth chart in West Lafayette. The headliner is redshirt senior Jaycen Taylor. While perhaps technically a new starter, he split carries with Sheets in '06 and '07 and picked up over 1200 career rushing yards before tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2008 season. He's back on the field now, but it might take him some time to get back to pre-injury form. Depth: Sophomore Ralph Bolden took all the first team snaps in the spring and is a faster option than Taylor. Junior Dan Dierking and redshirt senior Frank Halliburton (#21 FB) provide even more depth. Most eyes, however, are already turning to Florida freshman Al-Terek McBurse. He's yet to play in a single practice, but already he's been mentioned as a possible instant contributor and future starter.


Chris Polk.
RS Freshman. New Starter.
2008 stats: 20 carries, 33 yards, 0 TDs.

Prior to spring practice, Washington had eight scholarship running backs competing for the starting job. After a wave of injuries and academic issues, only four remain. Redshirt freshman Chris Polk, one of the highest rated recruits of the Willingham era, is the favorite to start. He started the first two games of 2008 before getting injured himself and missing the rest of the year. A mix of speed and size at 5'11" 205 pounds, Polk could turn into a very productive back, but it might not be right away. Depth: The three backups pushing Polk are young players themselves with redshirt sophomores Willie Griffen and Curtis Shaw joining grayshirt freshman Demitriuis Bronson. Griffen was second on the team in rushing yards last year and even if he doesn't start, will probably see his fair share of carries. Shaw last played running back early in 2007 before moving to receiver and missing the '08 season for personal reasons. At fullback, senior Paul Homer (#15 FB) is a two year starter and will likely be featured much more in the new offense.


Stafon Johnson (#13).
Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 138 carries, 705 yards, 9 TDs.
C.J. Gable (#21). Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 107 carries, 617 yards, 8 TDs.
Joe McKnight (#8). Junior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 89 carries, 659 yards, 2 TDs.

There isn't a deeper collection of running back talent anywhere in the country. Going six deep with high school All-Americans, the Trojans have a backfield filled with talent, speed, and now experience. On a team that will split carries, senior Stafon Johnson (left) is a decent pick for de facto starter. Averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per carry over his career, Johnson is one of the better running backs in the nation. Depth: Classmate C.J. Gable has actually started more games than Johnson, but has yet to top him in season rushing totals, save their freshman season. Junior Joe McKnight is one of the most electric players in the nation, but has had some minor injuries that slow him down at times. Senior Allen Bradford (#3 FB) hasn't seen as many carries as the other backs, but had a very strong spring and could move back up the depth chart this fall. Sophomore Marc Tyler (#44) might need to wait another year to see more than a few handful of carries, but Jimmy Clausen's former running back is a tough runner between the tackles. Redshirt freshman Curtis McNeal is also in the mix to earn a few carries in his first year of action. At fullback, Stanley Havili (#2 FB) is one of the most versatile fullbacks in the nation and a threat as a runner or receiver.


Josh Haden.
Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 120 carries, 492 yards, 1 TD.
Montell Harris. Sophomore. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 179 carries, 921 yards, 5 TDs.

Sophomore Josh Haden (right) was the official starter, but Boston College used two freshman backs last year with sophomore Montell Harris winding up with more carries and the title of team's leading rusher. Both are expected to continue to split carries, although it's possible with a new coaching staff one back might start to earn more of a primary role. Neither are very big backs at 5'8" 182 and 5'10" 190 but both are still physical runners who aren't scared to run between the tackles. Depth: Senior Jeff Smith might not get as many carries, but his real value to the team is as a kickoff returner. Redshirt junior James McCluskey (# 12 FB) is a load at 6'2" 246 pounds and has also shown the ability to haul in a few passes from his fullback spot. Entering his third year as a starter, McCluskey will add veteran experience to the Eagle backfield.


Dwight Tardy (#52).
RS Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 133 carries, 481 yards, 3 TDs.

Redshirt senior Dwight Tardy has a chance to do something very few running backs ever do, lead their team in rushing for four straight seasons. However, it hasn't taken many yards to accomplish this feat. His three year total of 1,824 rushing yards would have put him 3rd on 2008's single season rushing leaderboard. Still, Tardy is a veteran back that has started 26 games in his career. Now likely fully recovered from a torn ACL suffered in 2007, Tardy will be counted on heavily if WSU hopes to improve on offense. Depth: A transfer from Cal, redshirt junior James Montgomery will make a pushing for the starting job after being the offensive scout player of the year in '08 while sitting out his mandatory transfer year. Redshirt sophomore Logwone Mitz adds some heft to the depth chart, checking in at 6'1" 225 pounds. The Cougars's second leading rusher last season, Mitz might lose some carries to Montgomery, but should still see the field as an experienced runner.


Bobby Doyle. Senior. New Starter
2008 stats: 16 carries, 174 yards, 1 TD.
Marcus Curry. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 stats: 0 carries, 0 yards, 0 TDs.
Alex Teich. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 stats: 7 carries, 24 yards, 0 TDs.

It's a brand new look for Navy as they will field one of their least experienced group of runners in the past few years. Slotback Bobby Doyle (right) is the only one of the presumptive starters to have started a game before. He's also the only non-sophomore of the two slotbacks and fullback who make up Navy's starting backfield. Marcus Curry didn't see any carries during eight games of action last season so it's hard to say just how effective he will be. He should be over the initial learning curve though by the ND game. Alex Teich is taking over the fullback job from long-time starter Eric Kettani. At a listed 6'0" 212 pounds, Teich is a good 30 pounds lighter than his predecessor Kettani. Depth: Senior slotback Cory Finnerty has the most experience of the bunch, with seven career starts to his name, but as of now is behind Curry on the depth chart. In addition to veteran leadership, he could supplant the sophomore if he struggles.


Dion Lewis.
Freshman. New Starter
2008 stats: N/A

It's a wholesale change at running back for the Panthers with LeSean McCoy and valuable backup LaRod Stephans-Howling moving on to the pros. After enrolling early and playing in spring practice, 5'8" freshman Dion Lewis has the early lead on the starting running back job heading into fall camp. Anytime you have a freshman starter, the concerns about learning the entire playbook and pass protection crop up in addition to questions about how he will do against collegiate defenses. Depth: In what will likely be somewhat of a running back by committee approach in '09, redshirt freshman Chris Burns looks like the next guy off the bench to run the football. Another player without any game experience, it's easy to see why Pitt really is starting from scratch at the RB position. Redshirt sophomore Shariff Harris, the only scholarship running back to have carried the football in a game, and four-star freshman Ray Graham will also push for carries. At fullback, redshirt sophomore Henry Hynoski (#17 FB) only has one carry to his name, but at 260 pounds is one of the bigger fullbacks ND will face in 2009. Redshirt junior Kevin Collier is easily the most experienced back on the team, with 37 career carries, but after three years at running back he has been moved to fullback for the 2009 season.


Jordan Todman
. Sophomore. New Starter.
2008 stats: 47 carries, 296 yards, 3 TDs.

Like Pitt, UConn has to replace a star runner from the '08 season. In the Huskies's case, it is Donald Brown, the nation's leading rusher from last season. Next in line is sophomore Jordan Todman. As a freshman last season he was the main backup to Brown, where his speed helped him jump a few older players. As the new feature back, Tilman will be counted on in UConn's new, less run-heavy offense. Depth: Pushing Tilman will be redshirt senior Andre Dixon. UConn's leading rusher in 2007, Dixon fell behind Brown last season. If he pushes, he might be able to overtake Tilman by the time of the Notre Dame game. At the very least he will see his fair share of carries. Redshirt sophomores round out the top of the depth chart. Fullback Anthony Sherman, a team captain for the '09 season as a junior, will be back, although UConn to this point relies for their fullback more for receiving and blocking than rushing. Last season Sherman only had 6 carries, but was actually UConn's second leading receiver with 26 receptions for 270 yards.


Toby Gerhart (#46).
Senior. Returning Starter.
2008 stats: 210 carries, 1,176 yards, 15 TDs.

Stanford has quickly established a quality running game, largely on the back of senior Toby Gerhart. Setting Stanford's single season rushing record last season, Gerhart was a 230 pound battering ram of a running back that still had enough speed to outrun unsuspecting linebackers. Because of the way he can wear down a defense, he will be one of the better backs that ND faces in 2009. Depth: Junior Jeremy Stewart is the backup to Gerhart, but saw 1st team snaps all spring while Gerhart was playing baseball. Like Gerhart, Stewart is a big 6'0" 220 pound runner that works well as a bruising runner. He's also Stanford's leading kickoff returner, giving him more opportunity to make an impact. Incoming freshman Tyler Gaffney hasn't had any collegiate practice yet, but the extremely productive California native will fit right in to Stanford's between the tackles rushing offense and is a good bet to be Stanford's next star running back. At fullback, Stanford has one of the better blocking backs in the nation in junior Owen Marecic (#7). He is rarely a threat to run the ball, but reportedly will see time at linebacker in addition to fullback for the Cardinal this season.

2009 Opponent Running Back Analysis and Rankings

It's quite the mixed bag this season with no real consistent look among the various opponents. All of the star power this season seems to be centered on the Trojan depth chart, with no real other proven All-American caliber backs on the schedule. Some teams have dependable but not flashy veterans while others are putting their faith in newcomers. There are also a few backs looking for a second chance following season-ending injuries in 2008.

Only 6 of the 12 opponents feature what I would classify as "returning starters" (although PU's Taylor have plenty of experience), so I suppose it is fair to say that the 2009 theme of inexperienced opponents carries through to the running back position. Given ND's own inexperience at linebacker and defensive line, coaches Tenuta and Hart will definitely earn their keep if ND can improve upon last season's 45th ranked rushing defense.

After last year's crop of speedy backs, there do seem to be more "big" backs in 2009. The first six opponents all feature backs over 200 pounds (assuming McBurse plays for PU) and ND finishes up the season with 230 pound Gerhart. Only BC features smaller backs and even they proved to have the strength to move the pile on occasion last season. As ND moves to get faster on defense, they will have to keep up the strength to not wear down as the bigger running backs hit them over and over. The good news is seeing likely starters like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Manti Te'o reporting at 270 and 245 pounds respectively. Having some depth in the interior of the D-line will help out too.

As the fullback position continues to vanish in college football, the Trojans appear to have the only real running threat in Stanley Havili and Allen Bradford. Navy as always will utilize the fullback, but at 212 pounds Navy's Alex Teich might not be quite as effective as previous Navy fullbacks. UConn's Sherman caught a lot of passes last year, but as the Huskies move to a new no-huddle offense, we'll have to see if he's still a vital part of the passing game. As for blocking, Stanford, Pitt, BC, and Washington all look to have a dependable lead blockers.

Looking at the rankings, there does seem to be a decent dropoff after the first five teams. Then again, I ranked BC low last season due to having to start true freshman and they were impressive all season long. Perhaps MSU's Edwin Baker or Pitt's Dion Lewis will have a similar impact. Assuming they can learn just the basic offense, freshmen can usually make a quicker impact at running back than just about any other position.

1. Southern Cal - Not much to say about the Trojans. They are loaded.
2. Nevada
- The Wolfpack feature not one, but two runners who have led the WAC in rushing.

3. Stanford - Gerhart is one of the tougher runners in the country. Owen will open holes for him.
4. Michigan
- No big names, but a lot of athleticism and speed.

5. Boston College
- A tough but young duo in Haden and Harris.

6. Purdue
- Taylor's recovery from ACL injury might be slow. Plenty of position depth helps though.

7. UConn
- Todman and Dixon have the potential to be a dependable duo.

8. WSU
- Tardy and Montgomery are quality backs, even if the rest of the offense hamstrings them.

9. Michigan State
- Not much experience, but some decent options. Baker could be a good one.

10. Washington
- Polk has potential, but the depth chart is very thin and inexperienced.

11. Pitt
- A very young group of backs with barely any career carries to their name.

12. Navy
- A brand new batch of runners with less size than usual at fullback.