Thursday, August 02, 2007

2007 Opponent Position Preview: Running Back | by Pat

From the passers to the runners, the 2007 preview marches on.

GEORGIA TECH - Tashard Choice (#15) RS Senior. 2006 stats: 297 attempts, 1472 yards, 12 TDs. Returning Starter.

Tashard Choice had a relatively quiet game against the Irish last year, but his importance to the Tech offense grew as the Yellow Jackets got into the heart of their ACC schedule. He wound up leading the ACC in rushing and was 13th in the nation in rushing yards per game with 105.2. A tall, physical running back, the Oklahoma transfer doesn't waste much motion towards the sidelines and focuses on getting straight up the field. If this means running into a defender, he's more than willing to drop a shoulder and try to muscle a few extra yards. He also shows enough patience at the line to let the hole develop rather than just taking the ball and sprinting forward as hard as he can. He's not the fastest running back, but is quick enough to beat defenders to the corner if they don't take good angles. Depth: Fullback Mike Cox (#13 FB) is a starter in the Tech offense and is a fantastic blocking fullback who will occasionally sneak out and catch a pass. Backup running back Rashaun Grant adds a bit more speed to the mix while sophomore Jamaal Evans, a smaller back than Choice or Grant, picked up 5.2 yards per carry in limited action last season. Last but not least, heralded incoming recruit Jonathan Dwyer might earn a few carries as well after a prolific high school career.

PENN STATE - Austin Scott. RS Senior. 2006 stats: Redshirt in 2006. New Starter.

Austin Scott has had an up and down career at Penn State. A highly touted recruit, he hadn't done much until having a breakout game against FSU in the 2006 Orange Bowl. He then red-shirted last year after breaking his ankle prior to the season. He still has yet to match the 436 yards he put up as a freshman, so it will be interesting to see which Austin Scott shows up this season; the swift and talented high school all-star or the backup who has spent time in and out of Coach Paterno's doghouse. The 6'0", 222-pound back has the size and speed to be a very solid running back, but he'll have to stay healthy and earn the confidence of his coaches first. Depth: Rodney Kinlaw has been a career backup at Penn State, but is a speedy alternative to the bigger Scott. Redshirt freshman Evan Royster had a strong showing in the spring Blue-White game and will add another big (6'1", 210 pounds) option in the backfield. At fullback, Matt Hahn (#19) had a few carries last year as well as a handful of receptions. At 236 pounds he's not a huge blocking back though.

MICHIGAN - Mike Hart (#5) Senior. 2006 stats: 318 attempts, 1562 yards, 14 TDs. Returning Starter.

Like Chad Henne, Mike Hart is entering his fourth year as a key member of the Wolverines offense with three productive years under his belt. Earlier in his career Hart had issues with injuries, but he was healthy in 2006. He did have shoulder surgery in the spring, but is supposed to be just fine this fall. Hart's ability to avoid fumbles is legendary, but even more impressive is his ability to avoid getting tackled for a loss of yards. In 318 carries last year, he only lost 39 yards, which comes out to a loss of 0.12 yards per rush. That compares with 0.20 for Tashard Choice, 0.66 for Javon Ringer, 0.24 for Darren McFadden, and 0.17 for Darius Walker. (That number is also a compliment to UM's offensive line.) If you're looking for a key to Michigan's chances of success; it's Hart. UM is 17-2 when he rushes for more than 100 yards and is only 10-8 when he either rushes for under 100 yards or misses the game due to injury. Depth: Last year's backup Kevin Grady had a major knee injury in the spring and it's unlikely he'll be back for the ND game. Sophomore Brandon Minor had an immediate impact as the freshman picking up an average 5.7 yards per carry on 26 carries. He'll add more speed to the UM offense when he's on the field. Minor's classmate, Carlos Brown, was switched from RB to CB in the spring, but has since moved back to RB. Freshman Vince Helmuth, walk-on Mark Moundros, and converted linebacker Quintin Patilla -- who wasn't on the recently announced roster but is apparently still on the team -- will compete this fall to win the starting fullback spot.

MICHIGAN STATE - Javon Ringer (#40) Junior. 2006 stats: 86 attempts, 497 yards, 1 TD. Returning Starter.

Javon Ringer got off to a fast start averaging 108 yards per game over the first four games of the season. But then he injured his knee and was forced to sit out the middle portion of the Spartan schedule. He attempted to play at the end of the season, but only picked up 59 yards total over the final three games. When fully healthy, the 5-9, 200-pound Ringer is a jitterbug type back with speed to spare. But knee injuries have a way of taking away that final gear so it will be interesting to see if Ringer can get back to his early 2006 form this fall. Depth: Healthy or not, Ringer will likely be sharing carries with massive 6-0, 255 pound back Jehuu Caulcrick (#3 FB, 108 attempts, 426 yards, 6 TDs). ND fans might remember him stomping through the Irish defense last year. However, after picking up 111 rushing yards and a touchdown on eight carries against ND (13.9 yards per carry), he only picked up 201 yards and one more touchdown on 71 carries over the next eight game combined (2.8 yards per carry). Like Ringer, he's very physically talented, but also like Ringer, it's hard to tell just how effective he will be in 2007. Another backup, A.J. Jimmerson, provides more quality depth and good hands in the passing game. At fullback, the Spartans will line up the massive 6'0" 275-pound Dwayne Holmes to punish linebackers and possibly get a carry here or there.

PURDUE - Kory Sheets (#64) Senior. 2006 stats: 158 attempts, 801 yards, 11 TDs. Returning Starter.

Purdue has a bit of a running back battle on their hands as Kory Sheets, starter for most of last season, was listed as the backup to Jaycen Taylor (113 attempts, 677 yards, 5 TDs) coming out of spring practice. Sheets is a dynamic athlete who actually was leading the nation in touchdowns with eight until the Notre Dame game last year. However, as the season went on, Jaycen Taylor started to see more action, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield. Regardless of which one is named the official starter this fall, both will split carries and continue to be an offensive threat running or catching the ball. Depth: Dario Comacho was the third string running back last year, but transferred after spring practice. That leaves freshmen Malcolm Harris and Dan Dierking as the only other scholarship running backs on the roster.

UCLA - Chris Markey (#39) Senior. 2006 stats: 227 attempts, 1107 yards, 2 TDs. Returning Stater.

What's interesting given Chris Markey's 227 rushing attempts and sturdy 4.9 rushing yards per carry average in 2006 is that he only scored two rushing touchdowns. Throw in his 35 receptions and that TD total still doesn't budge. That's probably more a result of the Bruins' play-calling, but it still speaks a bit to Markey's role as more dependable workhorse than explosive play-maker. He will still be a key part of the Bruin offense in 2007 and is a tough runner, but he is not the kind of runner who wins games by himself. Depth: Kahlil Bell is a dependable backup, but missed a good portion of last year due to injury and suspension. The main short yardage back last year, Chane Moline, should continue to receive red zone carries after a successful freshman season that saw him lead the Bruins in rushing TDs with five. Raymond Carter was a Top 100 recruit and could see the ball his freshman year, despite the relative depth at running back. At fullback, Michael Pitre (#9 FB) is a block first, run second type of fullback, but he did snare in 16 receptions last year.

BOSTON COLLEGE - L.V. Whitworth (#57) Senior. 2006 stats: 174 attempts, 791 yards, 4 TDs. Returning Starter.

Another running back by committee team, the Eagles split duties between L.V. Whitworth and fellow senior Andre Callender (146 attempts, 633 yards, 3 TDs) in 2006. Both players have over 2,000 career rushing yards but neither are all-conference level backs. Whitworth is the more physical of the two while Callender brings a bit more speed and open field ability so they do compliment each other and give the Eagles some solid depth at the position. Depth: What will hurt the Eagles is if linebacker/fullback Brian Toal redshirts this season due to injury. He led BC in rushing touchdowns last year with six and is a potent goalline threat. Sophomore Jeff Smith had a surprisingly strong freshman season as a kick returner and will add a bit more speed to the position as he continues the transition to collegiate running back. Junior A.J. Brooks is another possibility to see an increase in responsibility in 2007. At fullback, converted linebacker James McCluskey will use his 6'2", 240-pound frame to try and open some holes for the Eagle running backs.

SOUTHERN CAL - Chauncey Washington (#33) RS Junior. 2006 stats: 157 yards, 744 yards, 9 TDs. Returning starter.

If you've followed recruiting even a little bit, you're aware that USC has been collecting top ranked tailback recruits like no other school over the past few years. A staggering ten tailbacks on the roster were prep All-Americans. The result is an impossibly deep depth chart of talented and athletic, albeit largely inexperienced, backs. The only issue is, there is only one football. Chauncey Washington appears to be the leader in the race to accumulate the most carries, but that could change at any moment. Washington is a strong and big runner at 220 pounds, but battled with multiple minor injuries last year. Depth: If he can't go, it's an open field for his replacement with the versatile and elusive sophomore duo of C.J Gable (#35 - 111 carries, 434 yards, 4 TDs) and Emmanuel Moody (#31 - 79 carries, 459 yards, 2 TDs) being the likely front-runners. 6th-year senior Herschel Dennis is back from his various knee injuries and hopes to get some carries, but will have to fight for playing time with 5th-year senior Desmond Reed, sophomores Stafon Johnson and Allen Bradford (#14 FB), and incoming All-American recruits Joe McKnight, Marc Tyler, and Broderick Green. McKnight just might have the most promise of all of the backs on the roster and has very high expectations from the Trojan faithful. At fullback, 6'1" 220-pound redshirt freshman Stanley Havilli has recovered from a broken leg and should be the starter, with freshman Jordan Campbell backing him up. Expect there to be attrition from this list by the time the ND game rolls around, whether by position change or transfer. But in the meantime, this is one impressive collection of talent.

NAVY - Adam Ballard. (#8 FB) Senior. 2006 stats: 154 attempts, 792 yards, 3 TDs. Returning Starter.

Navy is never short on gritty, tough runners and this year is no different. In fact, this may be one of the deepest collection of Navy runners in recent memory. Leading things off, Adam Ballard is a force at fullback as Navy's primary option and should be recovered from the broken leg suffered during the Army game last year. He has had limited success against the Irish the past two years (19 attempts, 78 yards, 1 TD) as ND focused on stopping the fullback dive, but will still demand attention again in 2007. Both starting slotbacks for Navy, Reggie Campbell (99 attempts, 706 yards, 6 TDs) and Zerbin Singleton (28 attempts, 191 yards, 1 TD), are back and although short at 5'6" and 5'8" respectively, they are both quick runners on the edge and capable blockers. Campbell was also Navy's leading receiver last year, so he's a threat for the secondary as well. Depth: Sophomore Shun White was a backup slotback last year but averaged 12 yards a carry (!) on 48 carries and scored 5 touchdowns. I suspect he will see the ball a lot more in 2007. Backup fullback Eric Kettani is Ballard's heir apparent and had a very strong spring according to reports. He also carried the ball 53 times last season, mostly when Ballard was out with injury, so he has some game experience.

AIR FORCE - Chad Smith. Junior. 2006 stats: 26 attempts, 162 yards, 0 TDs. New Starter.

As the Falcons move towards a more balanced offense under new coach Troy Calhoun, there was a bit of a twist in the Air Force depth chart. Chad Smith, last season's 5th leading rusher for Air Force has been penciled in as the starting tailback. The returning leading rusher, Chad Hall (155 attempts, 784 yards, 5 TDs.) has been moved to a receiver position, although he still might get a handful of carries when the Falcons do revert back to an option attack. Depth: Fullback Ryan Williams was the 3rd leading rusher on the team last season and will continue to be an offensive option in 2007. At 215 pounds he's more "big tailback" than "blocking fullback" so it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the changes in the offense. Former halfback turned quarterback Jim Ollis was moved back to running back in the spring and did well enough to still be listed there heading into the fall. At 22o pounds, Scott Peoples is the biggest running back on the team and will backup Williams at fullback.

DUKE - Justin Boyle. Senior. 2006 stats: 91 attempts, 358 yards, 5 TDs. Returning Starter.

The problem with judging Duke running backs is that they rarely have much room to run. Even solid backs struggle behind weak offensive lines. But while judging their talent level might be hard, what Duke does have is returning experience. The top five ground gainers all return for the Blue Devils. Justin Boyle started seven games last year and at 215 pounds has enough size to break weak tackle attempts. He missed the spring with injury and isn't expected to be fully healthy at the start of the season though. That opens things up for Re'quan Boyette (87 attempts, 388 yards, 2 TDs) who actually was Duke's leading rusher while starting only three games. Faster than Boyle, Boyette is also considered a bigger back at 5'10", 210 pounds. Depth: At fullback, Army transfer Tielor Robinson (#18 FB) provides size at 245 pounds, but also hauled in 15 receptions last year for four touchdowns, making him a versatile threat likely to see the ball more in 2007. Most of the pre-season speculation is on him having a breakout year. Ronnie Drummer is the fastest back on the team, but struggled through an injury-plagued 2006. If he's healthy, he'll provide a good change of pace from the stronger Boyle and Boyette. Clifford Harris, the team's third leader rusher last season, will provide additional depth but likely not much else.

STANFORD - Anthony Kimble. RS Junior. 2006 stats: 114 attempts, 470 yards, 2 TDs. Returning Starter.

Stanford's running game was ranked 115 out of 119 teams last year, but that can hardly all be blamed on Anthony Kimble. A poor OL and non-existent WR threats meant teams could focus on Kimble. That he was still able to average just over 4.1 yards per carry is a testament to his effort on the field. A former wide receiver, Kimble has the ability to make tacklers miss and is fast enough to turn the corner on most defenses, but overall he's an average running back. ND fans might remember the TD pass he threw last year against the Irish on a trick halfback pass play. Depth: Toby Gerhart (106 attempts, 35 yards, 0 TDs) at 6'1" 230 pounds is a bigger back to compliment the faster Kimble and could see the goalline carries this season. Senior Jason Evans also returns but isn't likely to do much more than provide depth after being Stanford's leading rusher in 2005. 5'9" 173-pound Tyrone McGraw adds a speed dimension to the Cardinal running back corp and had a stellar spring game, including an impressive 85 yard touchdown run. Emeka Nnoli (#25 FB) will be back at fullback, but hasn't done much in the way of carrying the ball so far in his Stanford career. Perhaps that will change under new coach Jim Harbaugh. On the other hand, he might lose the starting fullback job to converted linebacker Sam Weinberger.

2007 Opponent Running Back Analysis and Ranking

As with opposing quarterbacks, this is a seasoned and veteran group of rushers. Even the two teams with new starters still have plenty of experience. PSU's Austin Scott started four games in his career and has over 1000 career yards, while Air Force didn't graduate their best rusher from last year; they just moved him to a new position for now. On the other hand, the actual "names" aren't exactly the kind to strike fear in the hearts of too many defensive coordinators. Mike Hart is a weapon, and to a lesser degree, so is Tashard Choice, but the rest of the backs fall in the range of "solid" to "pretty good". There are a few wildcards: Austin Scott has a load of potential, as does the stable of Trojan backs. But overall, it's not exactly a lineup of killer backs, and most of them would be considered "bruisers" as opposed to speed merchants.

One thing that does warrant concern: with our defense likely shifting to a 3-4 look with the front seven, the Irish aren't going to be stacking a lot of beef on the line. Chris Stewart already moved back to the offensive line, and the options at nose tackle all fall under 300 pounds (with freshman Ian Williams possibly being the lone exception). That means that durable backs who just pound away, all game long, might have success in softening up the line as the game drags on. Looking back at the list, I see a number of heavy hitters (Choice, Scott, Caulcrick, Washington, Gerhart, Whitworth, Ballard, Boyle), so strong run support from the Irish linebackers, especially the inside guys, is going to be key. Traditionally, ND has had more success busting up these type of backs than corraling the speed demons, but with the change in defensive philosophy, past performance may not be indicative of future results.

Another factor to consider is that with all of the veteran backs, they likely have worked on their pass protection and should be savvy enough to pick up a blitzing linebacker. One of the built-in advantages of the 3-4 is that it helps to disguise the 4th (and possibly 5th) pass rusher, but a veteran back is more likely to recognize the threat and at least chip the oncoming defender. I'm not saying they will all be successful; experience alone isn't enough to stop John Ryan at full speed. But it is something to keep in mind.

Rankings. I found these units fairly hard to rank. Honestly, after the top three, there really isn't too much of a difference between #4 and #9 in my mind. And even the Duke and Stanford backs aren't all that bad considering the offensive lines they have to run behind. Think of Michigan, USC, and Georgia Tech on tier one, the next eight teams on tier two, and Air Force bringing up the rear on tier three. It's all of the question marks that make that middle tier so interesting. Will Austin Scott be a star or a bust? How healthy is Javon Ringer, really? Is a Whitworth/Callender tandem better than a Markey/Bell one? I guess we'll all start to find out in about a month.

1. Michigan - Hart is a star while Minor and Brown are talented backup options.
2. USC - Very deep and very talented. No proven college stars yet, but it might not take long.
3. Georgia Tech - Choice and Cox form a talented backfield. Decent mix of talent on the bench.
4. Navy - Ballard would be effective on any team. As usual, a deep bench at this position.
5. MSU - Might be over-ranked here if Ringer doesn't recover fully from his injuries.
6. Boston College - Whitworth and Callender are a quality one-two punch. Jeff Smith could surprise.
7. UCLA - Markey will benefit from a healthy Kahlil Bell and more experienced Chane Moline.
8. Purdue - Sheets is very fast and Taylor is dependable, but not much depth at all after that.
9. PSU - Austin Scott has loads of potential, but for now it's just potential.
10. Duke - The top five backs return. Will they have room to run?
11. Stanford - Kimble will continue to run hard, but he can't win games by himself.
12. Air Force - Loses best returning rusher to receiver.