(This is the second part in a series.)
As at quarterback, Notre Dame will see a lot of familiar faces at running back from 2005's opponents. And unlike the quarterback position, where unproven signal callers rarely make an immediate impact, it is far easier for a freshman or other inexperienced running back to step into the feature role and produce. So what's in store for the Irish this season? Let's take a look.
PITT - Raymond Kirkley. 2004 stats: 154 attempts, 560 yards, 6 TDs. Returning Starter.
Kirkley was the leading rusher for Pitt last year (and in 2001 as well) but only amassed 560 yards (at an avg. of 3.6 yards per carry). A strong, physical back, his production was more limited by Walt Harris' playcalling that his own talent level. Also returning is fullback Tim Murphy who missed time last year with injury but still was Pitt's second leading rusher. Depth: It shouldn't be a surprise if Pitt's starting tailback against Notre Dame is a true freshman. Rashard Jennings enrolled a semester early and was the star of the annual Spring Game with 119 yards rushing on 19 carries against the first team defense. At 6'1, 235 lbs, he might remind Irish fans of a Rashon Powers-Neal style runner. However, he reported to Pitt at 265 lbs, so he'll have to keep his weight down. He's still a good bet to start. Also a possibility to start is fellow freshman Conredge Collins. Another big back (225 lbs - see a trend yet?), Collins was one of the highest-rated recruits in Pitt's incoming class, which by the way includes 5 players listed as running back.
MICHIGAN - Michael Hart. 2004 stats: 282 (!) attempts, 1,455 yards, 9 TDs. Returning Starter.
Michigan's other freshman sensation (alongside Chad Henne) is back and should be a formidable opponent in 2005. After gaining 1,455 yards (at an impressive 5.2 yards/carry clip) and leading the Big Ten in rushing, Hart should be even better after a year of college weight training. A shorter back, Hart is the type of low-to-the-ground power runner that disappears into the pile and pops out the other side. He already holds a record as the only Michigan back to top 200 yards rushing in 3 consecutive games. Brian Thompson or Obi Oluigbo will have to step up and take over the fullback spot left by departing Kevin Dudley. Depth: Freshman Kevin Grady, another short power back, enrolled a semester early (to much recruiting hype) and so far is getting rave reviews in practice reports. Expect to see him get some carries every game. Rounding out the deep, but young, stable of running backs is Max Martin, a 6'1 215lb sophomore.
MICHIGAN STATE - Jehuu Caulcrick. 2004 stats: 113 attempts, 629 yards, 5 TDs.
Despite a costly fumble on the goal line, Caulcrick had a productive game against the Irish last year. The 243 lb running back is a load to bring down, and his 5.5 yards/carry average is a testament to that. He's not a threat to outrun the secondary, but is the kind of running back that can wear down a defense. Depth: Jason Teague will join Caulcrick in a running back by committee approach. Teague started 8 games last season and gain 716 yards so he has plenty of experience. A wildcard in the Spartan backfield is incoming freshman Javon Ringer. Ringer tore his ACL as a high school senior but was still one of the top running backs in the country, and his homerun speed could lead to quality playing time and an outside shot of starting by the ND game.
WASHINGTON - Kenny James. 2004 stats: 172 attempts, 745 yards, 5 TDs. Returning Starter.
Returning starter James had a decent season last year, but Washington's lack of committment to the run kept his stat total low. This year there's a lot of talk in Seattle about establishing a power running game, and while James is more of a speed back, he also has enough size (215 lbs) to break the first tackle. James Sims returns to the fullback spot he took over when Zach Tuiasosopo broke his leg in the ND game. At only 205 lbs, he is more of a running than blocking fullback. Depth: Shelton Sampson returns and will give the Huskies some depth in the backfield. Given Ty's penchant for splitting carries between running backs (Jones/Grant, Grant/Walker), look for Sampson to get plenty of carries this year.
PURDUE - Jerod Void. 2004 stats: 159 attempts, 625 yards, 3 TDs. Returning Starter.
Void is an extremely dependable running back and with with 22 game starts under his belt, one of the more experienced the Irish will face. A tall back at 6'2, 212 lbs, Void has a nice mix of speed and strength. When Purdue does go to the fullback, it will most likely be Anthony Heygood. Depth: While Void is listed as the starter, senior Brandon Jones will get plenty of carries as Purdue likes to split carries between the two. At 235 lbs, Jones is a stronger back than Void and will be Purdue's power runner up the middle. Rounding out the deep Boilermaker backfield is Kory Sheets, who has the breakaway speed that Void and Jones lack.
USC - Reggie Bush/Lendale White. 2004 stats: Bush- 142 attempts, 908 yards, 6TDs. Returning Starter. White - 203 attempts, 1,103 yards, 15TDs. Returning Stater.
Continuing with the "ummm...USC is good" theme, Bush and White should combine to be one of the best tailback tandems in the country this season. Bush's exceptional speed is always highlight material, but White (right), technically the starter, is the better all-around running back who has the power to wear down a team. Either one is a handful and together they give USC a backfield guaranteed to keep defensive coordinators up at night. Bush's 509 receiving yards and 7 TD receptions are an added threat. Fullback David Kirtman had a solid spring and will be another weapon in the USC offense. Depth: The transfer of spring practice star Chauncy Washington hurts the depth, as does the knee injury to Herschel Dennis, who might miss the entire season. Still, USC has speedy Desmond Reed and will benefit from the return of muscle-bound fullback Brandon Hancock. I wouldn't be surprised if Hancock beats out Kirkman early in the season and makes USC's running game even more dangerous with his speed and receiving ability.
BYU - Curtis Brown. 2004 stats: 158 attempts, 828 yards, 6 TDs. Returning Starter.
Brown is a very talented running back with plenty of speed and vision. After gaining only 12 yards on 15 carries against the Irish last year, he finished the season strongly and will make a run at 1,000 yards rushing in 2005. Brown is also a competent receiver out of the backfield who had 27 catches for 125 yards last season. And when it gets close to the goal line, that is where BYU will bring out what is probably the biggest fullback in college football, 6'0, 292 lb (!) Moa Peaua (check out the linked story -- it's great). He's not a threat to carry the ball, but "The Tongan Power" will basically be a sixth offensive lineman on the field for the Cougars. Depth: Naufahu Tahi is a bigger back than Brown at 230lbs and should see most of his carries between the tackles.
TENNESSEE - Gerald Riggs, Jr. 2004 stats: 193 attempts, 1,107 yards, 6 TDs.
Technically, Riggs isn't a returning starter. But in 2004 he not only outgained starter Cedric Houston, but also posted a better yards-per-rush average. Early buzz is touting Riggs as a Heisman darkhorse and phrases like "2000 total yards" are being tossed around on Vol message boards. Big, strong, and fast, this blue-chip recruit seems on track to finally live up to the hype surrounding his signing with Tennessee. And to block for Riggs is 275 lb fullback Cory Anderson, who is also a candidate for All-American status. Depth: The Volunteers have a stable of talented, but largely untested backups. JaKouri Williams, Adrian Foster, and David Yancey continue the tradition of deep UT running back depth charts, but none of them have much game experience.
NAVY - Grab Bag.
Navy's option offense means there is not one primary ballcarrier. With a QB, FB, and two split-backs, you never know who is going to get the ball on any down. The bad news for Navy is that they aren't returning any starters in the backfield. Along with new QB Lamar Owens, Trey Hines (right, in motion) and Marco Nelson appear to be the leading candidates for the split backs position. Hines is a track team sprinter and Nelson is only listed at 178 lbs, so likely they will stay away from the middle of the pile. The between-the-tackle running will likely fall to Matt Hall who has the uneviable task of replacing Kyle Eckel, perhaps the best runner Navy has had in over 20 years. At 216 lbs, Hall is not as big as the usual Navy fullback so it will be interesting to see how he handles the position. Depth: Navy has a number of other young runners so it's possible Coach Paul Johnson will give them a chance to prove themselves. Backup QB Brian Johnson and speedy but small Reggie Campbell (5'6 164 lbs) are a couple who will contend for carries.
SYRACUSE - Damien Rhodes. 2004 stats: 153 attempts, 870 yards, 10 TDs. Returning Starter.
Splitting carries with Walter Reyes last year, Rhodes will now be the center of attention in the Syracuse backfield. A shifty, quick runner, Rhodes had an impressive 5.7 yards/carry last season. He will also be dangerous motioning out of the backfield, as he had 18 catches for 246 yards last season; a number that might increase under the new West Coast offense being implemented. Accompanying Rhodes in the backfield will be sophomore fullback Breyone Evans, who is also a threat to run the ball. Depth: Bodies, but not much experience seems to be the case on the Syracuse bench. Jeremy Sellers, Tim Washington, and Kareem Jones are in the mix, but none have really had a chance to show anything on the field.
STANFORD - J.R. Lemon. 2004 stats: 93 attempts, 440 yards, 6 TDs. Returning Starter.
Lemon was injured for part of last season but should return healthy and ready to carry the ball under new coach Walt Harris. A very fast running back, Lemon also has enough size at 225 lbs to take the pounding of an every down back. Blocking for Lemon will be another jumbo fullback, 275 lb converted defensive lineman Nick Frank. The fullback was MIA under Coach Teevans so Frank doesn't have much experience on the offensive side of the ball. Depth: Stanford is plenty deep at running back this year and the first guy off the bench should be former ND commit David Marrero. In fact, message board rumblings are that Marrero may even surpass Lemon and begin the season as the team's starter. A sprinter, Marrero is one of the faster running backs ND will face and will be dangerous as a receiver as well. Junior Jason Evans is also a talented running back who might get a chance to carry the ball a few times a game.
2005 Opponent Running Back Analysis and Rankings
As usual, Notre Dame is going to face a lot of talented running backs this season. However, upon closer inspection it's not as bad as in some years past. Notre Dame's run-stopping ability again should be the pillar of our defense, and most of the opponents feature larger, power backs, which really almost plays into ND's strength. Smaller, faster running backs like Bush and Marrero can give ND fits with their speed and ability to line up as slot receivers, but guys like The Tongan Power will most likely have to stick between the tackles.
Still, even with that potential advantage, the top strata of opponent running backs is very, very talented. Lendale White, Reggie Bush, Michael Hart, and Gerald Riggs will be hard to contain no matter where they run. The rest of the opponents will be dangerous, but not much more than what ND usually faces every year.
Again, putting things such as coaching strategy aside, and focusing solely on talent and team depth, here are my rankings for the running back units that ND will face in 2005.
1. USC - Bush and White make this a no-brainer.
2. Michigan - Hart is a premiere feature back. Grady and Martin add plenty of size and talent.
3. Tennessee - Riggs might be the best all-around back ND faces. A lot of inexperience behind him, though.
4. Purdue - Veteran talent and a mix of running styles give Purdue a formidable running back unit.
5. Stanford - Lemon, Marrero, Frank, Evans, and others give Harris plenty of quality choices.
6. Syracuse - Rhodes is an excellent running back, but the backups are unknowns at this point.
7. Michigan State - Caluchick could surprise with a good year. Freshman Ringer is the wildcard.
8. BYU - Brown is a quality running back, but will have to show up against good defenses like ND's.
9. Washington - Experience is there, but last year's 3.2 yards/carry average will need to go up.
10. Pitt - Could a true freshman beat out Kirkley for the starting spot?
11. Navy - Too many new faces to warrant a higher ranking.
Next up: Wide Receivers.
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
(This is the second part in a series.)