College football pundits have deemed 2009 the "Year of the Running Back." And why not? The top three passers coming into the year are either injured (Sam Bradford), inconsistent (Colt McCoy) or underwhelming (Tim Tebow).
And therein is lesson number one of college football punditry—if your top three passers aren't throwing well, that means no one is throwing well. On to the running backs, please!
So be it—perhaps it ought to be the "Year of the Running Back." After all, the Wildcat has reached even the far, unimaginative reaches of the NFL. Out rushing your opponent still largely determines the success or failure of your team.
Plus, the Heisman race was fast becoming a trumped up Davey O'Brien award. It's about time another position wins.
In any case, two running backs now compete for our attention—Stanford's Toby Gerhart and Alabama's Mark Ingram.
Lets compare their strengths and weaknesses, their value to the team, and how they project at the next level before you decide which you prefer to have on your team.
Ingram is a tough, resilient running back who has carried the rock for Alabama all year. His instinctual running is well-suited for the Tide's use of the Wildcat, where an additional blocker and the threat of misdirection often results in a chaotic line of scrimmage.
Additionally, his size (he stands 5'10" on a good day) helps him to "run small," by fitting through tiny openings in the blocking scheme. He runs confidently, is patient when he needs to be, but can bust through a gap in iso runs for short yardage when necessary.
He's taken the majority of snaps at running back despite being pushed by backs Roy Upchurch and Trent Richardson.
His greatest weapon is his speed. He has the mythical "initial burst" that the most sought after trait in running backs, the moment where it looks as though the defenders are running on sand. I remember watching Ingram's gashing runs against Virginia Tech at the start of the year and I could not believe how slow the Hokie defense looked.
Ingram flung himself at the Tech defense time after time, helping secure the win in the fourth. His commitment to such an indefatigable, smash-mouth style, is one of the many reasons he has endeared himself to Tide fans.
Straight up, Toby Gerhart trucks fools. His upright running style requires great lower body strength, making you think he'd be more vulnerable to low tackles. Yet teams have not been successful in chopping him down, a strong indicator of his tremendous sense of balance.
Gerhart hits the hole fast, and does a great job following his blockers. Anyone capable of getting a tackle for a loss against Toby Gerhart should be awarded a bronze star. He's capable of being tackled only in droves and can fall forward for five yards like an old-school fullback.
And if having his offensive line create a whole wasn't enough, he can also make his own. Some of his better runs are have come when he meets a wall of blockers and uses terrific lateral movement to break containment and gash defenses along the sideline.
Without contact, Gerhart also possesses elusive speed, something that distinguishes him from being a trumped-up fullback. Watch him outrun Oregon State's speedy, under-sized defense —particularly on the draw play on third and 15, you can see Gerhart flat out beat the secondary to the outside.
Gerhart is not a particularly good receiving back—easy guess is, he just doesn't have the hands for it—so that limits the effectiveness of what could be an outstanding screen game, especially given Stanford QB Andrew Luck's remarkable accuracy.
Aside from that, the usual limitations to any power running game apply. Hit Gerhart early and often, and you limit his ability to get a head of steam. Don't lose containment—he's a shifty back who likes to bounce it outside. Teams bring safeties up at their peril.
(How Wake Forest—a team that is 11th in the ACC in rush defense, was able to contain him is beyond me. I missed the game, but it looks by the box score as though Stanford relied heavily on the passing game.)
Mark Ingram has very few weaknesses. While he has proven to be a fine receiver out of the backfield, his pass protection abilities are limited by his size.
The closest thing I can come up with is that Ingram can be knocked off balance, and struggles to recover his speed once solid contact is made. He's still in the upper echelon in terms of backs—I'm speaking only in the sense of how he compares among the best balancing acts, Gerhart included. First contact is not easy to run through for Ingram, but God knows he's trying.
Value To Their Team
Try immeasurable, on both sides.
The Tide and the Cardinal go as their running backs go. Stanford's loss to Wake Forest can be directly correlated to Gerhart's pedestrian 87 yards, as can Alabama's close call against Tennessee, during which Ingram rushed for 99 yards and no touchdowns.
Gerhart and Ingram have time and again sealed wins for their teams late in the game, contributing immensely to their value. Ingram did it in epic back-to-back tight games against Ole Miss and South Carolina. While Greg McElroy struggled, Ingram was deployed for full length drives in the Wildcat formation, ending in touchdowns that put the games out of reach. His late runs against Virginia Tech and Kentucky were similarly crucial.
Gerhart kept the Stanford scoring machine alive against USC and Oregon, tearing off first downs and proving unstoppable in the red zone. His production is crucial for Stanford to control the clock and minimize their time on defense, a unit that has yet to catch up to the accomplishments of its offensive counterpart.
Ingram has carried his team through the trials of Greg McElroy's dwindling confidence, but Gerhart still outnumbers Ingram in terms of attempts, 246 to 194. To me that indicates that while Ingram is a cog, albeit a large cog, in the Tide offense, Gerhart is the Stanford offense. He is the substance of the Stanford identity.
Just as Ingram is the logical continuation of what Glen Coffee started last year, Roy Upchurch will do the same if Ingram decides to depart for the NFL. Without Ingram, the Tide would plug in another of their backs, and the offense would look similar to how it does now.
Gerhart is the back—there are no players behind him. Next year, Stanford cannot expect to be successful at what it does now with Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney.
This is what makes Gerhart the more crucial of the two.
How They Project
Gerhart doesn't project well. You can't have trucking your opponent be your only method of attack against NFL players. And his speed, even laterally, won't be enough. Cornerbacks and safeties are a lot faster—and keep containment a lot better—at the next level.
I mean, I hate to be "That Guy." The one saying Gerhart can't do something, but bowling people over is not a strategy that translates from college to the pros. As a third down back in pass protection, running the occasional safe draw play, sure. But the Great White Hope in the NFL, Gerhart is not. Enjoy him now.
Ingram projects well. He's shown he can take punishment, and his speed is NFL caliber. His size precludes pass protection, and that tends to telegraph run/pass in the more sophisticated scheming of the professionals, which could hurt his productivity at the next level if teams run-blitz.
But he has shown great ability at receiving, so he would be a great fit in any screen-heavy passing offense (perhaps the Chargers or Jets).
Another year of barrelling through SEC defenses will only improve his legendary stamina—if he waits that long. He's an easy first rounder whenever he chooses to pursue a career in the NFL.
Are we talking college or the NFL?
That's really the difference between the two, in my opinion. Gerhart is currently a man among boys, simply bowling his opponents over, while Ingram is a pre-professional, fine-tuning his versatility and finding new, previously unheard of ways to break big plays.
That's why I'd prefer to give Gerhart the Heisman —it is, after all, a college award. Let fortune take care of Mark Ingram, as it most surely will.
My choice... I'm picking Gerhart .