Position Review: The Running Backs

Leading up to the 2005 Illini football season, IlliniBoard.com's Jeff Murdock decided it would be a good idea to breakdown the Fighting Illini football team position by position. In today's installment, Jeff looks at the running back position, arguably the best position on the field for the Fighting Illini thanks to the combination of EB Halsey and Pierre Thomas at tailback and Jason Davis at fullback, and incoming five-star recruit Rashard Mendenhall.

Last season, the strength of the Illinois offense was the running game. In Ron Turner's offense, the Illini running backs were required to be both runners and pass catchers, and all three returning backs excelled in both categories. The Illini running backs combined to rush for 1,584 yards on 312 carries (5.1 yards per carry) despite opposing defenses knowing that the only way Illinois was going to be able to move the ball against them was on the backs of Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey, and Jason Davis.

In his first two seasons at Illinois, EB has been the Illini's all-purpose running back. He has been adept at running the ball up the middle and to the corner, but he really excels when he is catching passes out of the backfield. Many people, including this author, have suggested that Illinois would be a better team if the Illini were to split EB out into the slot, allowing the Illini to get their best two offensive weapons on the field at the same time in EB and Pierre Thomas.

When he was lined up in the backfield, EB was used to run all over the field. Looking at just the first two games of last season, EB ran up the middle, over both guards, and outside both tackles. The two tables below show the type of plays that EB had in the first two games of the 2004 season. They show that he had most of his carries up the middle, and a lot of his success was when he ran to the outside, especially against UCLA.

Play Type Times Run Average Yards Gained
Pass 2 3.0
Rush - Left 1 1.0
Rush - Left Guard 1 4.0
Rush - Left Tackle 1 0.0
Rush - Middle 9 7.4
Rush - Right Tackle 2 3.5
Play Type Times Run Average Yards Gained
Pass 3 5.7
Pass - Screen 1 9.0
Rush 2 1.0
Rush - Left Guard 1 1.0
Rush - Left Tackle 3 5.7
Rush - Middle 11 5.1
Rush - Right End 1 8.0
Rush - Right Guard 3 4.3

Hopefully new Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook can see the benefit in having a change of pace back like EB in the offense that can break away from the ends and use his creativity to evade tacklers to his advantage, and not force him to run the ball up the middle like he has done for the previous two seasons of his career, negating quite a bit of his effectiveness.

Last season, Pierre was Illinois' leading rusher with 921 yards on 152 carries (5.9 yards per carry), and overall most effective running back. Pierre led the Illini in numerous statistical categories in 2004 including: all purpose yards, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, points scored, kick return yardage, kick return average, and kick return touchdowns. Pierre also finished second in total offense, only behind Jon Beutjer who had 1,084 yards of total offense last season to Pierre's 893 yards (these total yards do not include Pierre's contribution on kick returns).

As a ball carrier, Pierre's strength was running the ball through traffic and bowling over tacklers. While his counterpart in the backfield would definitely be considered a finesse runner, Pierre is much more of a power back. Pierre definitely has the speed to turn the corner on a run off tackle or a sweep, but with his strength, he is more valuable to the offense when he is rushing up the middle and taking on defenders one-on-one.

Just like last season, expect Pierre Thomas to be the workhorse for the Illini and take the majority of carries from the backfield. Assuming he stays healthy this season, Pierre should be able to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark in a season for the first time in his career. If Pierre averages 17 carries per game, and keep the same yards per carry average he had last season, he will eclipse the 1,000 yard mark on the ground in Illinois' final game of the season against Northwestern. If he were to do that earlier, it would be a good sign for Illinois, because it means either Pierre really broke out and had a huge season, or the Illini were ahead in games, and needed to slow down the game by running the ball to let the clock run down.

If the high-school All American were at any other position on the field, he would be seeing immediate playing time for the Illini. Unfortunately for him he is behind both Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey on the Illini's depth chart at running back. Having Mendenhall on the roster is a great insurance policy for the Illini offense because both Thomas and Halsey have spent time on the sidelines in their first two seasons at Illinois thanks to injuries. With the departure of Marcus Mason due to disciplinary reasons, Rashard has firmly entrenched himself as Illinois' third running back. Expect to see Mendenhall play more on Special Teams this year than as a running back due to the necessity of not only getting carries and passes out of the back field for Thomas & Halsey, but also fullback Jason Davis.

In Ron Turner's offensive system, the fullback was a key position, but in Ron Zook's spread offense, the fullback is an often-overlooked position on the field. With Jason's skills in the passing and the running game the Illini will find a way to get the ball into his hands this season. Last year, Davis rushed the ball just under five times per game (4.5) and had a higher per carry average (4.7 yards per carry) than every running back outside of Pierre Thomas.

Not only was Davis critical in the rushing game, he was the second most sought after receiver by the Illini quarterbacks. Only WR Kendrick Jones (47) had more catches than Jason Davis (41), and the next closest person to Davis was Franklin Payne (25) with almost twenty fewer catches. Sure, Davis' passes were almost always in the flat, and often times were the safety valve in the play, but he average 8.3 yards per reception and totaled 340 yards on the season, while scoring 2 touchdowns, behind only Kendrick Jones (5) and Melvin Bryant (3).

The most interesting thing with the Illini backfield will be to see how this new spread offense will be able to include one of the Illini's most versatile threats into the game. Last year it was obvious how Davis would be used, but this season I still have questions as to how a true fullback will fit into the spread offense that will inhabit Memorial Stadium in the fall.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories