Spring Preview: Running Backs

Last season Javarris James led the Hurricanes with 767 yards rushing as a true freshman. This spring, he'll head into practice as the clear-cut starter for the ‘Canes.

In addition to being the predicted starter, Javarris James has handled the spotlight admirably, saying all the right things and remaining positive through a tumultuous time for Miami.

This spring, James will be competing for playing time with Charlie Jones, Derron Thomas, and exciting freshman newcomer Graig Cooper, who enrolled early and is already on campus. The four backs will be running in a new system in 2006, courtesy of new offensive coordinator Patrick Nix and running backs coach Tommie Robinson.

Based on what Nix and Shannon have hinted at during press conferences and recruiting interviews, Miami will unveil some new looks at the running back position in the spring. Last year, Miami shied away from a traditional I-formation set and used a single back set with an H-back. As offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, Nix used a lot of I-form sets and utilized a fullback almost exclusively in those sets. Assuming he uses a similar set in Coral Gables, Bryant, Jerrell Mabry, or perhaps tight end Chris Zellner will see considerable playing time in 2007 at fullback.

Zellner saw lots of playing time last season as starting H back, but Bryant was more impressive in 2006 (when he managed to stay on the field). His history of disciplinary problems put him in the dog house with former coach Larry Coker. If Shannon wipes the slate clean (an improbability given his handling of other players thus far), he'll probably win the starting job. Mabry only saw the field in mop-up duty and his weight and physical shape may be an issue (purely speculative based on Shannon emphasizing player fitness this off-season).

Shannon has also hinted that Miami will use more than one running back exclusively. Last season Javarris James felt the wear and tear of the college game as the season wore on. He seemed to tire himself out and many times, his carries were primarily in the first few quarters. He should have been working on his conditioning to improve his endurance, and we'll see if the hard work pays off in the spring. Either way, Miami plans on using him between the tackles to pound the ball inside, and if they are going to do that, they need someone to compliment his style with some off-tackle, misdirection, or other plays designed for a speed back.

Enter Graig Cooper. The highly touted running back from Tennessee, originally recruited for the class of 2006, is finally on campus as a class of 2007 signee. Cooper will be showcased this spring as a multi-talented back and a compliment to James. He can do it all: run outside or between the tackles, catch passes, and return kicks. The players have been raving about his performance in drills, especially James, who has openly welcomed competition at the position. Cooper brings a year's worth of hype with him, drawing comparisons to several past ‘Cane greats. He says his main assets are his vision and explosiveness. In the spring, he'll get to display those traits officially in practices. The coaches, who have reportedly been very impressed with his athletic ability during drills, will expect him to contribute right away.

Also in the mix will be two seniors from the class of 2004: Charlie Jones and Derron Thomas. Jones was the starter on opening day 2006, but lost his job by October to James. He had a promising 2005 as a sophomore, gaining 546 yards as the primary backup to Tyrone Moss. After Moss tore his ACL against Virginia Tech, he started the remainder of the year at halfback. 2006 was mediocre at best for Jones, who averaged less than four yards per carry and was demoted to third on the depth chart behind James and Moss. He only gained 214 yards on the ground. If Jones has any kind of hunger, he'll work hard to rebound and win back his starting job. The spring will be his best bet to showcase his ability and impress the coaches, because with two more young backs coming in the fall (Lee Chambers and Shawnbrey McNeal), he could find himself fourth on the depth chart by August.

Derron Thomas knows what it's like to be buried in the depth chart. He is an enigma of sorts, sometimes excelling in spring, only to disappear in the fall. Thomas drew comparisons to Clinton Portis as a senior in high school. Many thought he was going to be the best back in the 2004 class. He has not managed to beat anyone out on the depth chart however, which is telling considering how little the 2004 RB class has accomplished on the field. Charlie Jones has not been consistent, Andrew Johnson recently transferred, and Thomas sees the field less than Jones. Despite his lack of playing time thus far, Thomas will be playing for a new coordinator and a new coach, and given his near propensity for making plays during the spring, it wouldn't surprise anyone if he got some serious looks.

In summary, the spring will give fans a chance to get a look at an exciting new prospect, follow the development of a young star in the making, and see the possible resurgence of two senior veterans. These three storylines, plus the possible implementation of a "full-time" (no pun intended) fullback, are the main things to look out for at spring practices during running back drills in Coral Gables.

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