TYM: Tailback Look

With spring practice right around the corner, we continue our Take Your Marks series where FOS staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan discuss and debate issues concerning the Penn State football program. In this installment they tackle the tailback position.

Biggest Hole

Harrington: It doesn't take a genius to see that Tony Hunt's departure leaves a big hole in the backfield. After all, the guy finished as the second-leading rusher of all time in Happy Valley. That's not too shabby when you consider the names below Hunt on that list: Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis, D.J. Dozier, Lydell Mitchell and Ki-Jana Carter, among others. As you have said on more than one occasion, perhaps no tailback did more with less around him. The question that now needs to be answered is how to fill that hole. With a series of candidates with limited experience and some concerns about their health, Penn State's coaches have to find a featured back to develop a multi-dimensional offense and take some heat off the quarterback.

Evan Royster

Brennan: It is difficult to argue that Hunt's loss creates a void in the backfield. But I'll try, anyway. I actually think a much bigger issue with respect to the running game is the departure of the program's best offensive lineman in more than a decade -- Levi Brown. I know we'll get into Brown's loss more when we look at the offensive line. But before leaving this category, I'll pose a hypothetical question in this debate: If you could have either Hunt or Brown back at Penn State for the 2007 season, who would you take? I'd go with the big fella and keep my fingers crossed that another back emerged.

Brightest Spot

Harrington: It is challenging to find a definitive bright spot in the backfield. There is Austin Scott, who was a legendary prospect coming out of high school as Pennsylvania's all-time leading single-season rusher. However, the senior back hasn't emerged healthy from a spring practice in three years. You also have an unbridled, unproven talent in redshirt freshman Evan Royster, a high school All-American in football and lacrosse. Royster had some problems with a shoulder injury while taking the redshirt last season.

If you toss in Rodney Kinlaw and redshirt freshman Brent Carter, you have a group of backs who gained 199 yards between them in 2006, all from Kinlaw. Scott played three seasons before redshirting in 2006. He has carried the ball 221 times over his career for 1,021 yards and made it to the end zone 10 times. Kinlaw has 80 career carries for 326 yards and two touchdowns. He has also had lingering knee issues since high school.

Rodney Kinlaw

Brennan: The bright spot is that Scott returns with significant experience, including a solid 110-yard, 2-touchdown effort in the Orange Bowl win over Florida State following the 2005 season. He has the tools to get the job done. But will he have the proper focus and the ability to stay healthy? That's anyone's guess. I'm not among those who believed Penn State's inability to land a blue-chip running back in its latest recruiting class would have a significant impact on the team in 2007. But I do believe there will be issues if the Lions strike out with tailbacks again in their next class.

Unexpected Impact

Harrington: With the durability of Scott and Kinlaw in question, and the experience of Royster and Carter lacking, I would not be shocked to see the staff make a shift or two to bolster this unit. Exactly who remains to be seen, but you have some players on this team who were formidable runners in high school who are not contributing nearly enough.

Among them are Lydell Sargeant, who rushed for 1,772 yards and 19 touchdowns as a high school senior in 2004. He also ran for 124 yards and a touchdown in the CaliFlorida All-Star game. Travis McBride led his McKeesport team to a PIAA title in 2005 and was the top WPIAL back that year with 1,607 yards on the ground and 23 touchdowns. Also, if Dan Lawlor can make an impact at fullback this spring, don't count out Matt Hahn as a tailback possibility. He's certainly not the fastest runner, but he may be the toughest on the team. Over his career he's rushed 15 times for 52 yards. A featured back? Perhaps not, but he could be an integral component if a lead horse fails to emerge.

Brennan: Is there anyone else you'd like to throw into that mix? I'll take a less all-encompassing approach and say Royster. In the days leading up to the Outback Bowl, teammates told us he is a strong runner with good but not spectacular speed, and that he has a great attitude. Hunt was the perfect example of a back like that not only earning playing time at Penn State, but also emerging as a impact player.

It's Now or Never

Harrington: As much as this also applies to Kinlaw, Scott is the man who has the eyes of the Nittany Nation on him. Few players have received as much hype entering Happy Valley as Scott did, coming off a record setting high school career. However, to date he has had only three 100-yard rushing games at PSU: 2003 vs. Kent State (21 carries for 100 yards), 2004 vs. Akron (11 carries for 116 yards) and 2006 Orange Bowl vs. Florida State (26 carries for 110 yards). The stars have aligned for Scott to go out with a bang, but the first question he needs to answer is whether he can make it out of the spring healthy, given that he has had a series of knee and ankle injuries which have sidelined him throughout his career.

Brennan: Which leaves me with Kinlaw. For all of the talk of his game-breaking speed coming into Penn State, I have yet to see him break anything in a game. Sure he rushed for 199 yards last season, but 86 of those -- including his career-long 43-yard carry -- came against Division I-AA Youngstown State. Take that game out of the mix, and his career rushing average falls to 3.2 yards (240 yards on 74 carries). Even more troubling: on 80 career carries, he has been thrown for a total of 60 yards in losses. This is exhibit A on why never I slobber all over someone's potential based solely on their 40 time. Having said all that, Kinlaw should have every opportunity to earn significant playing time in his fifth and final season in Happy Valley. Let's see if he seizes the opportunity this spring.

Stay tuned to Fight On State as Brennan and Harrington continue to take closeup looks at each PSU unit as the team prepares for spring practice. Also, catch other unit editions of Take Your Marks:

  • Linebackers
  • Defensive Line
  • Secondary


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