Two of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s most productive running backs last season both bid adieu to the league as Clemson’s C.J. Spiller was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft (Buffalo Bills) and Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the sixth round. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the other eight players that were among the league’s top 10 rushing leaders are all back, included in which is one quarterback.
From a personnel standpoint, Georgia Tech will head into the season with the rushing game to contend with, although Virginia Tech has been touted since spring ball as possessing the best running game in the country, period. Virginia Tech returns its leading rusher from a year ago but, when factoring in the offensive line, Georgia Tech will have the edge in the ground game come opening day.
Welcome to the third in an eight-part position ranking series. In order of potential, here is how the ACC rushing attacks rank, with special attention given to the running backs.
GEORGIA TECH– Despite the loss of leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer (1,395 yards, 14 touchdowns) to the National Football League, the Ramblin’ Wreck will still be extremely solid in 2010. Anthony Allen, who made his way from Atlanta via Louisville prior to the 2008 season, averaged nearly 10 yards (9.7) per carry last season, including a pair of 100-yard rushing games, and seven touchdowns (six rushing). Allen will make the move to B-back this season alongside Roddy Jones who started the final 13 games of the season in 2009 and averaged 6.5 yards per carry with a trio of touchdowns despite battling a wrist injury that kept him from playing at 100 percent.
But Georgia Tech’s rushing success will come from more than just the tailbacks. Quarterback Joshua Nesbitt topped the 1,000-yard rushing plateau last year and is back for his senior season. Up front, the Yellow Jackets have a pair of preseason All-ACC selections in Austin Barrick and Sean Bedford that anchor one of the best offensive lines in the league. There is not a whole lot missing from a rushing game that outgained every other team in the conference by nearly 88 yards last year.
VIRGINIA TECH – There is no question that Virginia Tech’s rushing attack will be one of the best in the country, but the Hokies lost the entire left side of their offensive line to the NFL and the guys up front will be searching for their niche, at least for the early part of the 2010 season. The positives are just as prevalent, however, as Ryan Williams returns for his sophomore season on the shoulders of an outstanding freshman year in which he captured ACC Rookie of the Year and first team All-ACC laurels after leading the league with 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns.
The news gets even better for Virginia Tech fans, however, with the return of yet another ACC Rookie of the Year in the backfield. Junior Darren Evans captured the award in 2008 after turning in a 1,256-yard, 11-touchdown performance, but missed all of last season while rehabbing a knee injury he suffered in the 2009 preseason. When he’s not looking downfield, quarterback Tyrod Taylor has the legs to add to this attack as well as evidenced by a career that has included 1,537 rushing yards and 18 running touchdowns.
FLORIDA STATE– The Seminoles boasted the ACC’s fourth-best rushing attack last season and the return of all five starters on the offensive line has got the offensive coaching staff at Florida State beaming with optimism. The return of both Jermaine Thomas and Chris Thompson can only add to the excitement, but it has also left a few question marks as neither back had completely asserted himself as the starter coming out of spring practice.
Thomas, a 10-game starter last season, ran for 832 yards on 163 carries (5.1 average) in 2009, while also catching 16 balls for 120 more yards and an additional score. He was the clear-cut starter heading into this season following an outstanding Gator Bowl performance against West Virginia, but Thompson did enough in spring ball to knock Thomas back a step on the depth chart. With Thompson, the Seminoles get a shifty back who can find even the smallest hole FSU’s offensive line can (and will) create. Thompson barely saw enough carries (23) to make a difference on the statistics sheet last year, but his 5.2 average per carry numbers, as well as his spring performance, could give the sophomore the starting spot in the opener with Samford.
BOSTON COLLEGE– Like Florida State, Boston College’s running game can do nothing but flourish with one of the best offensive lines in college football. The Eagles, also, possess a pair of preseason All-ACC selections up front in NFL prospects Anthony Castonzo and Thomas Clairborne. Boston College also returns the league’s second-leading rusher in junior Montel Harris and, as if the offensive line needed any help, the Eagles also bring back 6-2, 251-pound fullback James McCluskey who has missed time in each of the past two seasons with pretty serious injuries. He is expected to be at 100 percent once the season begins.
But, the news is not all golden for BC. Rolandan Finch, a projected second-stringer behind Harris, tore his ACL in the spring and is expected to miss at least the first part of the 2010 season. With the untimely injury, redshirt freshman Sterlin Phifer has vaulted up into the backup role. Despite not having game experience, there is a handful of confidence in the rookie who ran for 2,000 yards over the course of his last two prep seasons.
CLEMSON– It goes without question that the departure of do-everything back C.J. Spiller left the Tigers’ rushing attack depleted, but amazingly enough, Clemson has the personnel to still make a difference with its backfield this season. And, with the return of an experienced quarterback in Kyle Parker, as well as a solid offensive line, Spiller’s absence could be all but forgotten by midseason.
Both Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper shared Clemson’s annual “12th Man Award” which says a lot about what should be expected of the duo in 2010. Ellington is a slashing runner and the redshirt sophomore made his debut last season by exhibiting a 7.22 yards per carry average, rushing for 491 yards and four touchdowns on just 68 carries. The Ellington/Harper duo has been dubbed “Thunder and Lightning” by the Clemson coaching staff, and for good reason. When Ellington is in the game, the team will get a quick stop-and-go type running back, while the 6-0, 230-pound Harper is likely to run north-south and through people. He ran for 418 yards and four touchdowns for the Tigers last year in limited action.
MIAMI– Although the Hurricanes do not have a clear cut, all-everything starter in the backfield, what they do have is a bit of depth. Senior defensive back-turned-running back Damien Berry gave Miami fans a glimmer of hope after rushing for 616 yards on 93 carries last season, but the Hurricanes are going to need to get 110 percent out of their offensive line if they expect to do anything on the ground this season.
Patrick Hill, a 5-9, 255-pound battering ram of a fullback, should provide some extra blocking for Berry out of the backfield, but Miami has given itself a power back as well by shifting sophomore Mike James, a 5-11, 205-pound fullback, to the skill position behind quarterback Jacory Harris. The Hurricanes have a wildcard as well in redshirt freshman Lamar Miller who also stars on the Miami track & field squad. The success of the running game in Coral Gables, however, will fall on an offensive line that graduated three every day starters.
MARYLAND– A year after posting the seventh-highest rushing total in Maryland history en route to All-ACC accolades, Da’Rel Scott suffered through an injury-plagued season in 2009 that still saw him register nearly five yards per carry after running for 405 yards on 85 attempts. Scott is an athlete with definitive breakaway speed. The only question will be whether or not he can recover mentally after a down season last year.
One thing that will change in the Terrapins' backfield this season is the lead blocker for Scott. Cory Jackson is gone and all signs point to backup Taylor Watson getting the starting job, but Watson is still recovering from a minor knee injury he suffered in spring practice. Should Scott falter, Maryland does have a thoroughbred in the stable in junior Davin Meggett who posted a team-high six rushing touchdowns last year. Meggett has the bloodline to succeed, as he is the son of former NFL standout Dave Meggett who served stints at running back with the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets.
NORTH CAROLINA– A middle-of-the-pack rating in terms of the rushing game should be nothing new to Tar Heel fans. North Carolina’s rushing offense has finished eighth or worse in each of the last four seasons, but the personnel coming back this season has glimmers of potential and could go above all expectations, especially with an above average offensive line leading the way up front.
The Tar Heels will return two veteran running backs this season, but not by planning ahead for it. Senior Shaun Draughn started the first nine games last season and amassed 692 all-purpose yards (567 rushing), but missed the final four games of the campaign after fracturing his shoulder blade. Senior Ryan Houston filled in quite capably in Draughn’s absence, rushing 191 times for 713 yards and nine touchdowns in just four starts. Despite the difference in productivity, Draughn is clearly the starter and should be tremendously productive this season.
WAKE FOREST– Head coach Jim Grobe is expected to utilize a run-first mentality with an option tendency in Winston-Salem this season to better utilize his athletic quarterbacks, as well as a pair of running backs that are both capable of having breakout seasons, despite a weak offensive line. The Demon Deacons’ offense has a bunch of question marks, but the running back position is not so much a question of personnel, as it is to stamina and durability.
Senior Josh Adams, the 2007 ACC Rookie of the Year, has breakaway speed and the ability to keep opponents on their heels, but his health was a question all of last season. Adams led the ‘Deacs with 541 yards and four touchdowns on 113 carries last year, but Wake Forest is hoping to get a lot more from him this season. Regardless, the Demon Deacons do have a capable backup in Brandon Pendergrass who has more than filled the shoes of Adams when called upon. The junior has 927 career rushing yards in just two seasons and could push ahead of Adams this season at some point.
N.C. STATE– There were only two other teams in the ACC last season that were worse on the ground than the Wolfpack – and that was with a veteran offensive line in Raleigh. Now that the Wolfpack has parted ways with a slew of talent up front, as well as a pair of talented running backs, the adage about not being able to get any worse might not hold true. This season marks the first time since 2005 that N.C. State has not returned a starter at running back.
The Wolfpack’s leading returning rusher is quarterback Russell Wilson who ran for just 260 yards in 2009. Tom O’Brien redshirted Curtis Underwood in anticipation of this season’s lack of depth and has put a huge gamble on the fact that the junior can carry the load of a position with not much expectation. Sophomore Brandon Barnes, one of N.C. State’s top recruits two years ago, could easily move into the starting spot within the first couple of weeks, if not by opening day, but the duo will go through growing pains and are likely to shoulder a bunch of hits with not much blocking up front.
DUKE – The Blue Devils have plenty – PLENTY – of room to improve their ground game after finishing dead last nationally in rushing offense last season. Optimism with the offensive line, as well as a returning running back with a scattering of game experience, could be just what the doctor ordered in Durham.
The preseason battle between Jay Hollingsworth and Desmond Scott was for the starting job, but do not count out true freshman Josh Snead who enrolled at Duke in time for spring drills. Snead had the best spring game of any of the three backs, rushing for 99 yards on just nine carries, but Scott is the Blue Devils’ leading returning rusher after logging 262 yards and a score on 70 carries last year. Regardless, Hollingsworth has already been penned the starter for opening day and will bring 578 career rushing yards into the campaign, including 179 last season.
VIRGINIA– Maybe newly named Virginia head coach Mike London did not know quite what he was inheriting when he accepted the job in Charlottesville late last year. Maybe he did not take into account that the Cavaliers have, traditionally, one of the worst offenses in the country, let alone the conference. London has turned to the offensive strategy of former Seattle Seahawks quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor to breathe some life into the Cavalier offense. Hopefully Lazor brought a defibrillator with him.
Special teamer Perry Jones, who saw most of his action on special teams last season, will likely go into the new season as the starter at tailback after rushing nine times for nine yards in three games at the position last year. The only back with considerable game experience is leading returning rusher Torrey Mack (23 carries, 73 yards in 2009) who has slipped down the depth chart in favor of Jones, as well as Keith Payne who left the team last year less than 24 hours before opening day. There’s trouble in Virginia.
This CSM original content was written by Todd Anderson