College Football 2011: Running Backs to Keep Your Eye on
We all know how important a running back can be to a team. Ask Reggie Bush or Mark Ingram how running the ball well can be beneficial.
Most of the following backs may not be ready to take their team to a title just yet. But they are the ones we will want to keep our eyes on in the coming year.
Though this year’s draft was not particularly filled with running backs, that does not mean that there won’t be many starting roles in backfields around the country that need to be filled.
I have never heard of a team wanting to lose a running back or wanting to lose that continuity, but every team has to go through it at some point. Replacing a starter and beginning a new era (at any position, for that matter) is a tall task for any coaching staff.
The following are the running backs I am most interested in. I want to see if they can establish themselves in their first year as (in some cases, simply full-time) number one on the depth chart.
Marcus Coker, Iowa
It seemed that Jewel Hampton could never stay healthy, and Adam Robinson could not stay out of legal trouble or get it together in the classroom. But somehow, Marcus Coker did not get the largest share of playing time at Iowa in 2010. When he did get his biggest opportunity, though, he did not disappoint.
If I was Kirk Ferentz, I would have felt very excited to see my freshman churn out 219 yards and two touchdowns (including a beautiful 62-yard gallop that automatically told me he was the future in Iowa City) in the Insight Bowl.
With Hampton and Robinson out of the way, Coker is set to receive the bulk of the carries this year, and it will be his time to define himself.
Coker has a wide and bulky build, but can really get those wheels turning as a great downhill runner. Many who examine Iowa call in to question how a new running back and new quarterback can work, but I am not as skeptical.
James Vandenberg has shown promise (see 2009 at Ohio State) and Marcus Coker looks like a guy who could make up for whatever his quarterback can't do.
Coker is a guy who can carry the load for a team when time rolls around to start playing, and looks to be a major contributor for a Hawkeyes team looking to bounce back from a lackadaisical 2010.
Jason Ford, Illinois
Illinois fans loved to watch Mikel Leshoure have a breakout season in 2010, but no fans ever like to experience the fallout that ensues when your team loses a talent like Leshoure to the NFL Draft.
The heartbreak may be short-lived, though, in Champaign.
Back-up Jason Ford averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2010 in games in which he got double-digit touches. Ford can get going very quickly, meaning the offensive line will only need to open the holes for a few seconds and Ford will be gone.
He is stocky but swift, and his durability means that Coach Zook should be able to rely on him to produce and aid in the development of steadily improving quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.
If Ford can continue to make improvements and distance himself as the starter early, he will contribute to this Illini squad as they look to make strides like they did last year and compete in the reshaped Big Ten. That is still a fairly important "if," though.
Trent Richardson, Alabama
During Alabama’s 2009 title run and the 2010 season, many people looked at the backfield combination of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson as the best tandem in football. That notion was probably correct, but it is irrelevant now, as Ingram was taken in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints.
Richardson will finally get his turn to prove that he was the better back of the backfield team-up in ‘Bama.
We know Richardson is a freak. We know he is a 220-pound monster who can break away or run right through you. We know he can put a move on you with his legs or push you over with his arms.
This year in Tuscaloosa will be a little bit different than it has been in recent years. Coach Saban will focus in on defense (as usual), but more importantly, he will key in on running the ball as he breaks in a new quarterback.
What remains to be seen on this Alabama team, which will be competitive once again, is how Richardson responds to being the Tide’s lifeline. There will be no Ingram, and there will be no McElroy or Jones. What I can’t wait to see is what Richardson does with all of the workload that many in college football nation believed he deserved all along.
When I said most of these running backs are not ready to take their team to a title yet, this is the guy I was referring to as the exception. Alabama has never really relied on a prolific passer, but rather a guy who can manage a game and be a leader. With a new quarterback, Richardson may have to be that leader as well as the main piece of the Alabama offense.
Without a doubt, the defense will be good this year. But, as evidenced by LSU's performance last year, you cannot win a championship without offense as well. If Richardson lives up to his potential, though, we could be talking about the Tide competing for their second national title in three years.
I again put emphasis on the word "if."
David Wilson, Virginia Tech
Much like Alabama, over the past few years Virginia Tech has had a tandem of backs that they like to rely on.
The twist to this story is that both Ryan Williams and Darren Evans will be gone, leaving a hole to be filled by Wilson.
Wilson got fair amount of touches last season but was lackluster. His major problem was his inconsistency. He did average over five yards per carry in contests with double-digit carries, but that statistic is greatly helped by one visit from Central Michigan.
Needless to say, he has potential, but simply needs to apply his skill set to reach it with his opportunities set to increase greatly in the 2011 season.
Wilson is lean but strong. He has packed on the muscle to give himself the added dimension of physicality and toughness to go along with his ability to kick it into high gear when he needs to.
With the departure of Tyrod Taylor, breaking in a new quarterback will take top priority. But, to take some pressure off of (most likely) Logan Thomas, Frank Beamer will want to develop the potential of David Wilson.
How Wilson performs will be key for a Hokies team that likes to the rely on the ground game and is looking to win their fourth ACC title in five years.
Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
Not to sound redundant but, speaking of tandems, one of the most explosive running back-wide receiver tandems last year was that of Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon and running back Kendall Hunter.
In 2011, Blackmon will still be in Stillwater to compete for a Heisman Trophy after winning the Biletnikoff trophy last year. Hunter, on the other hand, will be competing for a spot on the San Francisco 49ers' roster.
This is where Randle comes into play.
He averaged 5.5 yards per carry last year during the regular season. Randle will look to continue what he had going last year, as he is sure to be receiving more playing time in 2011.
He is not the most stocky of backs. At 6'1" and 190 pounds, he is lean with good muscle, but his overall stature calls into question whether or not he will be able to stay the course throughout a college football career.
Where he does excel is his perimeter speed, which allows him to get out in space and really turn on the jets. Randle has also shown strides of improvement when it comes to running between the tackles.
The area in which he will really come in handy for the Pokes, though, is his ability to catch out of the backfield. With quarterback Brandon Weeden coming off an incendiary season, head coach Mike Gundy will look to give him as many weapons as possible. Randle may be another one of those weapons that will help the Cowboys compete at a national level in the fall.
Randle may not be an All-American rusher like Hunter was, but Randle should certainly fit the mold for this explosive Oklahoma State offense, and will look to make a name for himself in his sophomore season.
Roy Finch, Oklahoma
Replacing Oklahoma University's all-time touchdown leader, DeMarco Murray, will be no easy task for sophomore Roy Finch. Luckily for him, Heisman contender Landry Jones will be commanding the offense at the quarterback position.
This does not mean that Finch will be without a role, though, in 2011.
Finch is not your prototypical runner. He stands at 5'8" and weighs in at around 180 pounds. This does not mean that he cannot be productive like his 6', 215-pound predecessor, though.
Finch has great acceleration and can hit the holes in an instant. He packs an unexpected punch as well. His main advantage, though, is his low center of gravity, making him a tough runner to bring down cleanly. One facet in which he resembles Murray is in the receiving game, which will also come in handy while playing in this offense that clearly belongs to Jones.
Finch showed sparks of a bright future last year but, due to injury, he did not get enough touches to entirely gauge how productive he will be. Many will keep their eye on Jones in 2011, as well they should. But I would not discount the kind of contributions a young, ambitious Finch can give to an Oklahoma team sure to be competing for the national championship this year.
Ryan McCants, Oregon State
One of the most explosive running backs in 2008, 2009, and 2010 was Oregon State's Jacquizz Rogers. His brother and teammate, wide receiver James, will be returning in 2011. But, after putting up his third straight 1,000-yard season in 2010, Jacquizz decided to leave school for the NFL Draft.
Enter Ryan McCants.
What will be most enthralling to see regarding McCants is how much of the gridiron rust is present as he takes over.
McCants did not have a spectacular 2008, but it was a good season for him nonetheless. He put up a 4.0 yards per carry average while competing for the starting spot. Obviously, the spot was subsequently filled by Rogers, and McCants has not had the greatest amount of playing time since.
McCants does not have the breakaway speed that Rogers had. But he does make up for it in size, as he stands at about 6'1" and easily clears 220 on the scale. He is also one of the quicker backs for his size.
A strength of his is his great open-field vision. One thing that he wanted to improve on coming into Corvallis was his ability to read blocks. This is where the rust comes into play again.
If he has kept improving as a player while Rogers shined in the spotlight, he may be able to fit into this offense quickly and acquire the starting role. If the fact that he has had 10 carries over the past two years shows, quarterback Ryan Katz may have an extra load to carry for this team, and McCants may be out of some playing time.
The schedule does not do the Beavers any favors, but if McCants is able to get into a groove early, he may be in for a productive year.
Shawne Alston, West Virginia
It was only a year ago that West Virginia tailback Noel Devine was considered a possible Heisman candidate and potential high draft pick. Then the 2010 season happened, and Devine could neither stay healthy nor produce like he had in the past.
Bill Stewart still felt there was something left in the tank for Devine and continued to play him, so Alston got a measly 56 carries on the year.
This will change with the departure of Noel Devine.
Devine was a pure quickness/speed back, but Alston is not of that sort. With head coach Dana Holgorsen looking to bring his spread system to Morgantown, it will be interesting to see how Alston gets worked into the mix, since he is a back who can pack a punch but lacks top-end speed for the college game.
The junior gets a lot of strength from his lower body, and thus is hard to take down without multiple tacklers.
Alston will be a change of pace for the up-tempo Mountaineer offense and has some competition, but still looks like the starter for now.
Alston is an athlete that will add another dimension to this West Virginia attack in 2011. The thing to keep your eye on is how much this new dimension correlates into the kind of success that a player like Devine brought to the program, as the Mountaineers will most likely be competing for a Big East title this year.