There are very few positions that are attracting off-season attention like this one. With the departure of workhorse Tony Hunt, the unit has the choice between "injury and inexperience," as one observer put it. Two injury-plagued veterans, Austin Scott and Rodney Kinlaw, are the expected front-runners for the job headed into spring practice.
Scott sustained a knee injury in spring practice last April, which had him sidelined for much of the off-season and later played a role in the decision to redshirt him for the 2006 season. In 2005 he sustained a major ankle injury, which required surgery. Scott was also knocked out of his junior season in high school by a knee injury.
"Austin hasn't made it out of spring practice injury-free in three years. That has a lot of people concerned. This is his final shot; he needs to step up or step out," one observer said. "His workouts are going well. He's been working on leg strength, but his strength isn't the issue. The big question is can he be a lead horse for the offense. Is he durable enough? Is he tough enough? Does he have the body and the heart?"
Other observers have echoed that sentiment. As one said, "I don't doubt the ability is there. The last game he saw action in [the 2006 Orange Bowl] he got it done. He needs to pull it together and prep himself for the long haul. I am just not sure he has the duarability -- I am not alone there either."
Kinlaw is another veteran who has seen his share of nagging injuries over his career. In 2006 he sustained a knee injury in August preseason drills. In 2005 he sustained another knee injury which kept him out of the first few games of the season. In 2003 he tore his right ACL, which led to a redshirt season.
"Rod's facing an issue with getting that knee strong and healthy. It has been nagging at him throughout his career," one observer said. "These two backfield vets are regularly sidelined. If they are healthy they can do some damage, but based on history that is a big 'if.' "
There have also been varying opinions about Kinlaw's 5-foot-9, 190-pound frame.
"Is he big enough to be a feature back? I am not sure," one observer shared.
"He's the exact size of [Northwestern's Tyrell] Sutton," another added. "He has the speed to get it done, but that depends on the offensive line. He's not like Tony [Hunt] who could drag four guys for the first down."
On the rest of the depth chart you have redshirt freshmen Evan Royster and Brent Carter. Both are said to be boasting improved strength and stamina from their redshirt season. Royster has shown good ball carrying fundamentals, taking hand-offs well and showing good footwork. He has a good balance of upper and lower body strength, "drawing a lot of power from his legs."
He squares his shoulders well in the lane and will drop a shoulder to take on a hit. He also "runs smooth" and is getting better at "spotting lanes that open and close much faster," one observer explained. He has 4.5-range 40 speed and "hits a hole hard." Many feel that if Scott isn't convincing as a feature back that "Evan is the go-to guy."
Carter saw third team and scout team reps at running back this past season. At 6-foot-2, "his height is a disadvantage." He has worked on "lowering his running stance and shoulders off ball delivery."
He is focused this winter on improving his upper-body strength. He has "good lower body strength." One of his best assets is said to be his head. "He's a cerebral back. He anticipates movement well and has done a good job picking up the zone [blocking] lanes."
Aside from these four candidates speculation has been circulating about a potential shift to the backfield from one of the other units.
"Nothing has happened yet," one observer explained. "But, if the backfield doesn't come together quickly, the coaches realize they are going to have to be prepared."
Again, no shifts have occured yet, "but the spring is made for experiments," one observer said. The names that have been speculated as potential (and "potential" is stressed here) shifts are Matt Hahn, Derrick Williams, Lydell Sargeant and A.J. Wallace.
As an aside, it would seem to be highly unlikely that Wallace would shift from corner given that big, fast cornerbacks are more difficult to find that good running backs.
Matt Hahn and Dan Lawlor are the odds-on favorites to fill out the two deep heading into spring practice.
"Matt has really attacked his role -- he's so tough and never quits," according to one observer. "He's worked a ton with Dan Connor, trying to understand how linebackers think, how to engage them, read their tendencies and gain leverage and attack."
Despite his lack of size for a traditional fullback, at around 232 pounds, Hahn's "aggression really gives him an edge in the role." He has focused on "engaging and holding his blocks this season" and is working on his shoulder and back strength.
Lawlor is a more "traditional" fullback given his size of 245 pounds. Lawlor "excels" at blocking, but "is not as aggressive carrying the ball." This off-season has him working on his lateral movement, carrying fundamentals and overall consistency with the position.
Mikey Shuler is also expected to be in the mix at fullback this spring. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, he has a big frame. This winter he is working on building his leg and back strength "for better management when he engages an opposing player." As one observer said, "He tends to get knocked back a step when someone like a 'backer wraps him up. He just needs to get lower and build up some leg strength to absorb the hit better."
Like running back, there is speculation that the fullback position could see a shift from another unit. Again, this is all early speculation from observers, but some feel that the unit could see a tight end shift over given the sheer amount of players at the position and the "clear leader of that unit," Andrew Quarless.