Tuesday, August 05, 2008

2008 Opponent Position Preview: Running Back | by Pat

QBs are done. Time for part two. Let's look at the running backs.

SAN DIEGO STATE - Brandon Sullivan. RS Sophomore. 2007 stats: 58 carries, 220 yards, 2 TDs. New Starter.

Not only does Brandon Sullivan have to replace last year's starting running back, he has to replace the production of last year's leading rusher, quarterback Kevin O'Connell. The 5'11", 220 pound Sullivan has the size to be a workhorse back, but even with three starts last year he only accumulated 58 carries. He should get first crack at starting, but probably doesn't have all that long of a leash. He did contribute in the passing game with 18 receptions coming out of the backfield. Depth: Complimenting Sullivan is Atiyyah Henderson who went through a bit of an injury-filled sophomore slump last season. After rushing for 764 yards in his redshirt freshman campaign, Henderson only totaled 183 yards last season. Like Sullivan he chipped in in the running game with 27 catches. A smaller, speedy back, Henderson has a quick first step and is a solid change of pace from Sullivan. Redshirt sophomore Davon Brown has only seen 12 carries as an Aztec, but is another smaller but faster style back who will likely work into the rotation after being the leading rusher in the Aztec spring game. At fullback for the Aztecs is 6'0 220 pound Tyler Campbell, son of Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, who is strictly used as a blocker.

MICHIGAN - Brandon Minor. (#50) Junior. 2007 stats: 90 carries, 385 yards, 1 TD. New Starter.

The Michael Hart era at Michigan is over as is the pro-style offense that featured him. Junior Brandon Minor is the most likely to be named the official starter as Michigan moves to a spread option attack that will feature more rushers getting an opportunity to carry the ball. Minor has a solid mix of size (6'1" 215 pounds) and enough speed to be hard to catch in the open field. Depth: Likely to see carries along with Minor is junior Carlos Brown (#49) who averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry last year over 75 carries. He might see some of those carries while lining up at quarterback, but either way he's the kind of shifty and fast back that will have plenty of success in Michigan's new offense. He did miss a number of practices this past spring which might slow his involvement in the offense a bit. Kevin Grady (#56) has the size to run between the tackles at 230 pounds and is already back practicing with the team following an off-season DUI a few weeks ago. He did miss all of 2007 due to injuries so it might take some time for him to re-acclimate. Freshman and youtube star Sam McGuffie is a quick scatback with a penchant for hurdling and should start to see the ball a few times a game as soon as the first game of the season. There are still more options with speedy redshirt freshman Avery Horn and freshman Michael Cox. Heralded recruit Michael Shaw is also an option, but he might start his Michigan career as a receiver. Redshirt sophomore Mark Moundros is back at fullback and will likely be used as a blocker, rusher, and receiver in the new Michigan offense.

MICHIGAN STATE - Javon Ringer. (#6) Senior. 2007 stats: 245 carries, 1447 yards, 6 TDs. Returning Starter.

Like at quarterback, the Spartans present the first returning starter at running back on the ND schedule. Senior Javon Ringer has had a prolific career and is looking to see the ball even more in 2008 thanks to the graduation of bowling ball back Jehuu Caulcrick. This year those goalline carries will go to the 5'9" 202 pound Ringer who should see his rushing touchdowns jump up even if his stellar 5.9 yards per carry average from last season dips a bit. He did miss spring practice while healing from shoulder surgery, but with 453 carries to his name, it won't take him long to shake off the rust. Ringer also provides a receiving threat as his 295 receiving yards last season were good for third on the team. Depth: The Spartans present a trio of speedy backs this year as junior A.J. Jimmerson and redshirt freshman Andre Anderson are both in the Ringer mold of short and fast. There is an heir apparent to the bulky Caulcrick in 5'11" 230 pound redshirt freshman Ashton Leggett. It's possible he will see the ball in short yardage situations and give Ringer a breather.

PURDUE - Kory Sheets. (#32) Senior. 2007 stats: 168 carries, 859 yards, 11 TDs. Returning Starter.

In 2008 Purdue returns its solid running back by committee approach. Going by the team's depth chart, senior Kory Sheets is technically the backup, but he will probably see the majority of the carries once again. He has been sent to the bench for fumbling in the past, but his speed is hard to keep off the field for very long. Quick and shifty as a runner and receiver (30 receptions last season), Sheets should be in line for a solid final season with a great chance at breaking Mike Alstott's Purdue career record of 39 rushing touchdowns. Depth: Splitting carries with Sheets is senior Jaycen Taylor. He only missed four games last season after breaking a bone in his arm and totaled 107 carries for 560 yards and 4 touchdowns. Though smaller than Sheets, Taylor is a tough runner and even averaged slightly more yards per carry than Sheets last season (5.23 vs. 5.11). Like Sheets, he will provide the Purdue backfield with plenty of experience and production. Behind the two co-starters is sophomore Dan Dierking. Most of his 181 yards came in garbage time last season, but he did see the start against Michigan, even if he did finish that game with only 5 yards on 8 carries.

STANFORD - Anthony Kimble. RS Senior. 2007 stats: 115 carries 509 yards, 8 TDs. Returning Stater.

Even though he missed five games in 2007, Anthony Kimble was still the Cardinal's leading rusher for the second straight season. His 4.43 yards per carry average was certainly respectable considering the below average performance of the Stanford offensive line. When he can find some open field, Kimble has enough speed to be dangerous. He also has just enough size at 6'1" 210 pounds to lower his shoulder on occasion and fight for a few extra yards. Depth: Backing up Kimble is the promising junior Toby Gerhart. At 6'1" 230 pounds, Gerhart is a physical back capable of moving the pile. Expected to build upon his 2006 debut, Gerhart was lost for the 2007 season with an injury in the second game of the season against San Jose State. To that point he was averaging over 11 yards a carry against the Spartans with 140 yards on 12 carries. Sophomore Jeremy Stewart started four games last year as an injury replacement and wound up as the team's second leading rusher with 343 yards. 6'1" 235 pound sophomore Owen Maricic returns at fullback after starting every game last year and earning all-conference notice as a physical blocker.

NORTH CAROLINA - Greg Little. Sophomore. 2007 stats: 59 carries, 300 yards, 2 TDs. New Starter.

A familiar name tops the North Carolina running back depth chart. ND wide receiver commit Greg Little is now a running back for his hometown Tarheels. After being switched from receiver towards the end of the season, Little started the final two games and ran for over 100 yards each game at an impressive 5.5 yards per attempt pace. Taller than most backs at 6'3", Little is a powerful back that will take tacklers for a few extra yards once he builds up a head of steam. He's also surprisingly quick and nimble for his size and tough to catch if he's allowed to get to the corner. He's not as heralded as some of the other names on this list, but he is in line for a very productive 2008. Depth: In what is likely a record of some sort, North Carolina's leading four rushers last season were freshmen (two were RS freshman). Johnny White actually led the team in rushing but was moved to cornerback this spring. Anthony Elzy was the team's second leading rusher but will see his carries drop as he was moved to fullback. At 5'10" 210 he showed a nose for the endzone in goalline carries as his 5 rushing touchdowns led the team. He'll compete with returning starter fullback Bobby Rome who is more blocker than rusher. Sophomore Ryan Houston provides even more size at 6'2" 225 pounds, giving the Tarheels another big and physical running back on the depth chart.

WASHINGTON - Brandon Jonhson. Sophomore. 2007 stats: 51 carries, 196 yards, 2 TDs. New Starter.

While Jake Locker will probably lead the Huskies in rushing in 2008, sophomore Brandon Johnson is technically the starting running back. After seeing only 19 carries in the first 10 games of the season, Johnson got 23 carries against Cal when Locker was out with an injury. He responded with 121 yards and a touchdown, which translates to an impressive 5.26 yards per carry clip. He's still pretty inexperienced and will have to prove the Cal game was a sign of things to come and not a fluke if he's to make a serious impact on Washington's offense. Depth: Behind Johnson is even more inexperience with a pair of redshirt freshmen fighting for the 2nd string spot in Willie Griffen and Brandon Yakaboski. Freshman Chris Polk has the talent to make an immediate impact at running back, but it's unclear if Washington will keep him at running back or move him to receiver. At fullback Paul Homer and Luke Kravitz return and again should receive goalline carries; the two picked up 5 of Washington's 7 returning non-Locker scored rushing touchdowns.

PITTSBURGH - LeSean McCoy. (#11) Sophomore. 2007 stats: 276 carries, 1328 yards, 14 TDs. Returning Starter.

On the verge of becoming a college star, sophomore LeSean McCoy will compete for all-conference and All-America honors in only his second year as starter. There might not be a more dangerous running back on Notre Dame's schedule. Fast with excellent change of direction, McCoy will be tough to tackle and hard to catch in the open field. He also showed he can catch last year by hauling in 33 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown. Depth: Adding experience to Pitt's running back depth chart is senior LaRod Stephens-Howling. Stephens-Howling is an extremely quick scatback type who picked up 320 yards on 78 carries. He'll be more of a compliment to McCoy in 2008, but will be effective when defenses tire later in the game. Redshirt freshmen Shariff Harris reportedly had a strong spring and will push for carries as the season wears on. One of the better fullbacks ND will face is senior Conredge Collins (#1 FB), who has started 16 games in his career and can block and run out of the fullback position (33 carries, 110 yards, 1 TD in 2007).

BOSTON COLLEGE - Josh Haden. Freshman. 2007 stats: N/A. New Starter.

Not many programs in the country will be as young at running back as Boston College. Consider that none of the running backs on the roster have carried the ball a single time in college yet. Josh Haden enrolled early and is now penciled in as the team's starter heading into fall camp. A highly recruited prospect, the extremely quick Haden will have to learn quickly as the Eagles primary ball carrier. At 5'8" 190 pounds he's on the smaller side, which could limit his ability to be an every down back for BC. He should be effective if he can get to the corner, but running between the tackles won't be his strong suit. Depth: Looking to get carries when Haden needs a break are three other freshmen in Montel Harris, Eric Reynolds, and Jerry Kelly, and sophomore converted free safety Dan Mulrooney. Whichever one picks up pass blocking the fastest might have a leg up on his competition. Sophomore James McCluskey returns at fullback and is BC's leading returning rusher with a whooping 14 yards on 8 carries. He did pick up three touchdowns on those 8 carries and he should remain a goalline threat once again.

NAVY - Eric Kettani. (#12 FB) Senior. 2007 stats: 152 carries, 880 yards, 10 TDs. Returning Starter.

If there is one constant over the past few years, it is the tough, scrappy, and effective Navy fullback. Eric Kettani returns after leading Navy in rushing last year. His 5.79 yards per carry average is something you'd expect to see out of a speed back instead of a fullback. Depth: Navy will break in a few new starters at the slot back position. Quarterback Jarod Byrant will likely get some carries out of this position as will senior Greg Shinego. Shinego only saw 2 carries for 9 yards last year so he'll have to pick up the offense in a hurry. Senior Shun White did get more experience last year picking up 620 yards and 7 touchdowns on 78 carries. While he will see the ball more, with the increased attention he'll be hard-pressed to repeat his standout 7.97 yards per carry average. When White needs a break, quick sophomore Andre Byrd will get his chance to make an impact. Backing up Kettani at fullback is junior Kevin Campell, though he's rather undersized for fullback at 5'11" 193 pounds.

SYRACUSE- Delone Carter. RS Sophomore. 2007 stats: out with injury. New Starter.

One of the four teams to average fewer rushing yards per game than Notre Dame, Syracuse is banking on the improved health of its running back depth chart to see improvement in 2008. Delone Carter missed all of last season with a dislocated hip but is healthy now and hopes are high he can build on his debut 2006 season when he lead the team in rushing with 713 yards and four touchdowns and earned Freshman All-America honors. He only participated in non-contact drills this past spring so it might take him some time to get back into game shape, but he'll have nearly the entire season to do so before facing Notre Dame. Depth: Continuing with the injury theme, Curtis Brinkley was Syracuse's leading rusher this past season with 371 yards and 2 touchdowns on 111 carries, but also was knocked out the final four games of the year with a broken leg. Like Carter he was held out of contact drills this spring so there will be a period of readjustment. 6'2" 215 pound Doug Hogue saw action last year as a freshman with Carter and Brinkley out with injury and will likely continue to see the occasional carry. Tony Fiammetta returns at fullback where in addition to blocking he is the occasional receiver out of the backfield. He only had 3 rushing attempts last season but caught 12 passes for 75 yards.

SOUTHERN CAL - Stafon Johnson. (#13). Junior. 2007 stats: 98 carries, 673 yards, 5 TDs. New Starter.

The logjam of talented running backs continues at Southern Cal, although the numbers are a bit lower than last year. Stafon Johnson is the leading returning rusher and if he can avoid injuries like the pinched nerve in his foot that cost him a few games last season, he should have a spectacular season. Consider that the only non-Navy rushers who averaged more than Johnson's amazing 6.87 yards per carry were Florida's Percy Harvin, Arkansas's Felix Jones, and West Virginia's Noel Devine. That's pretty good company. Depth: The only thing that probably will hold Johnson back are the other talented running backs on the roster. Joe McKnight (#51) got plenty of hype as the "next Reggie Bush" and slowly started to show why as he picked up 540 yards and 3 TDs on 94 rushing attempts. His breakout game against Illinois in the Rose Bowl where he averaged 12.5 yards per carry on 10 rushes will only increase expectations for 2008. C.J. Gable (#23) only played in three games before an abdomen strain knocked him out for the rest of the season. He actually was the starter at the beginning of last season and he made the most of his 13 carries against Idaho, Nebraska, and Washington State, averaging 11.0 yards per rush. If he can stay healthy he will be another dangerous weapon for the Trojans. Allen Bradford has fought being moved to fullback, insisting he's a running back. The 6'0" 225 pounder may have worked himself into the rotation after an impressive spring practice where he was tough to bring down and faster than expected. Overlooked but crucial to the Trojan offense is returning starting fullback Stanley Havili (#3 FB). Effective as a blocker, rusher, and receiver, Havili is one of the best fullbacks in the country. In addition to 134 yards on 21 rushing attempts he had 34 receptions for 248 yards. His five receiving touchdowns were more than any wide receiver on the team.

2008 Opponent Running Back Analysis and Ranking

This was one of the previews I was most interested in completing. Almost even more important than the play of the offense line this season will be how the Irish defense stands up to the run. Last year teams could run at will on Notre Dame and that's just what they did. With that in mind, this year's crop of opponent running backs aren't overly scary. Technically, the Irish will only face four returning starters at running back, five if you count fullback Eric Kettani from Navy. However, included in the mix are a handful of extremely talented runners. Javon Ringer, LeSean McCoy, Stafon Johnson, and Joe McKnight are all likely candidates for post-season All-American teams and Kory Sheets has had plenty of success against ND over the past few seasons. If ND is going to have a better than expected year, they will need to find a way to slow down at least some of these talented backs.

Slow down is the operative word because this year's running back opposition is leaning heavily to the speed side of the equation. There aren't many big banger types like Jehuu Caulcrick or Robert Hughes. That's good news for an Irish defensive line that loses Trevor Laws and doesn't feature all that much heft. The obvious down side is that ND better not miss too many tackles when they have the chance because backs like Ringer, McCoy, Sheets, and McKnight aren't likely to be caught again in the open field. Even the newer faces like Brandon Minor, Greg Little, and Josh Haden are so-called home run threats. Tenuta was stresssing fundamentals and proper tackling all spring with the linebackers. Let's hope it pays off.

Some good news for the Irish is the opposing youth movement at running back means that pass blocking won't be an area of strength for many of them. Michigan State, Purdue, Stanford, and Navy are the only teams that start a senior running back. Meanwhile North Carolina, Washington, Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse feature backs that are only in their first or second year of playing. If ND is able to continually mask and disguise their blitzes, that will make things harder for the inexperienced running backs. That will either result in more QB sacks or opposing coaches being forced to play more veteran backups at the expense of the younger, more talented players (see ND using Junior Jabbie all last year as the 3rd down back because he was the best blocker).

On the other hand, it seems that just about every team that uses a fullback is returning a starter, so that will definitely help protect the opposing QB as well as present a veteran obstacle for the Irish linebackers on rushing downs. Other than Havili from USC, Kettani from Navy, and Collins from Pitt, most are strictly limited to blocking though and aren't much of a threat running the ball. Still, in those short yardage battles that often determine a game, whichever Smith winds up starting at middle linebacker for ND is going to have to win his fair share of battles against the opponents hard charging fullback.

I'd like to say that ND's road to improvement is going to be even easier given the lack of overall talent handling the rushing duties for the opposition. But that's just not true. Last year's running back crop was probably more talented top to bottom, but ND definitely has its work cut out for it in stopping the run against this year's young, but full of potential, group of backs. If you see ND consistently stopping backs for a loss or minimal gain early in the year, that is a great sign that the Irish will exceed expectations. Likewise, if teams keep finding ways to rush for first downs, it's going to be a long season.

Looking at the rankings, I think the top three are a class above the rest of the field. All feature All-American caliber backs and will present a major challenge for the Irish run defense. The next four teams lack the superstar element but feature experience, depth, speed, or all three. The third tier of backs probably starts at #8 with Stanford, but don't ignore the possibility that Kimble or Syracuse's Delone Carter could score points quickly with a few long runs.

1. Southern Cal - A ton of talent, superstar potential, and now experience.
2. Pittsburgh - McCoy is the star, but Stephens-Howling and Collins give the position depth.
3. Michigan State - It's now a one man show with Javon Ringer. If he can stay healthy, he'll deliver.
4. Purdue - Sheets and Tayor give Purdue the most experienced duo on this list.
5. Michigan - Lots of new faces in the post-Hart era, but a plenty of talent and speed as well.
6. Navy - Kettani leads a group that isn't as experienced as years past, but still effective.
7. North Carolina - This could be too low if Little has a breakout year, which he might.
8. Stanford - Gerhart adds more depth and gives Kimble some help finally.
9. Syracuse - There is some potential with Carter and Brinkley, but it's unproven as of now.
10. San Diego State - Sullivan, Henderson and Brown might develop into a solid trio of backs.
11. Washington - Not much experience or depth. Having Polk stay at RB will help.
12. Boston College - Haden will have some highlight plays, but he'll also make freshman mistakes.