SPRING PREVIEW – RUNNING BACKS
This article is the sixth of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first three segments previewed the defense. The next two looked at the offensive line and the quarterbacks. Now let's look at the running backs. This preview is based upon information released only prior to the opening of spring camp. My thoughts likewise share the same perspective. The article reviews roster changes and injuries prior to spring camp. The article also identifies issues that need to be addressed in spring practice and can be observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages.
To describe the Rutgers rushing offense as a "ground attack" would be generous considering that the running game more closely resembled a retreat in many games. Last season, the running game was more inept than was the woeful passing game. Head Coach Greg Schiano shuffled TBs as well as OL and QBs in an unsuccessful attempt to generate consistent offense. Though three separate players had 100-yard rushing games, Schiano could not get consistent production from the TB position as the TBs combined for only 894 yards rushing. Furthermore, the FB did not pose a threat that defenses were forced to honor as the FBs combined for only 3 rushing attempts and 16 receptions. New OC Craig Ver Steeg has brought an increased emphasis on a two-back power running game. Schiano has upgraded the athleticism at the FB position. Four TBs and three FBs will be jockeying for position on the depth chart.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
All players return from the two-deep. However, Schiano switched former starting FB Ray Pilch (10 GS, 12 GP, 3 rushes for 8 yards and 16 receptions for 135 yards) to TE.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS So TB Clarence Pittman (7 GS, 11 GP, 126 rushes for 316 yards, 1 TD, and 6 receptions for 11 yards)
- So TB Markis Facyson (5 GS, 11 GP, 124 rushes for 398 yards, 1 TD, 15 receptions for 164 yards, and 1 TD)
- Jr FB Cedric Brown (10 GP)
Clarence Pittman was academically ineligible in 2001 but practiced with the scout team. As one of only two returning TBs, Pittman emerged from spring camp last year as the co-starter alongside Marcus Jones. Nagging injuries in summer camp last year cost Pittman the starting job when the season opened but he played as the backup TB. A 129-yard rushing effort in his first starting assignment, at Tennessee, earned him starts in six of the final seven games. Pittman led the team in rushing attempts and finished second in rushing yardage. It was a disappointing season after the hype that had preceded Pittman's debut. He enters spring camp expected to battle Markis Facyson and Jason Nugent for the starting TB job.
Markis Facyson emerged from summer camp last season as the surprise starter, beating incumbent Marcus Jones and highly touted Clarence Pittman for the job. Facyson started the first four games before yielding to Pittman. Facyson led the team in rushing yardage and led the RBs in receiving yardage. He showed the ability to get outside but tended to be indecisive when running inside. He enters spring camp in a three-way battle for the starting TB job.
As a true freshman, Cedric Brown was switched from LB to DT during summer camp 2001 after the unplanned departure of four DL. Though Brown would have been better served with a redshirt season, he saw limited action as a third team DT. Schiano moved Brown, at his request, back to LB for spring camp last year and Brown quickly claimed the backup MLB job. However, poor conditioning led to his demotion in summer camp. Schiano later switched Brown to FB, where he saw action in the power I short yardage formation. Cedric was strictly a blocker and rarely saw action in regular formations, much less the ball. Schiano is upgrading the talent level at FB with the assignments of Brad Cunningham and Brian Leonard. I expect Brown to be the third team FB and short yardage specialist by the end of spring camp.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- So TB Jason Nugent (10 GP, 29 rushes for 125 yards, and 1 TD)
- Jr TB Marcus Jones (5 GP, 19 rushes for 55 yards and 1 TD)
- RS So FB Brad Cunningham (rejoined the program)
- RS Fr FB Brian Leonard (redshirted).
Jason Nugent spent most of his freshman season on special teams. He was the gunner on the punt team and blocked a punt that was returned for a TD against Miami. Nugent displaced Marcus Jones as the third team TB late in the season. He saw the bulk of his action at TB against Boston College in the season finale, when he rushed for 106 yards. Nugent will be vying for the starting TB job in spring camp. Nugent offers a power running dimension that both Clarence Pittman and Markis Facyson lack as TBs.
One year ago, Marcus Jones was the only experienced TB entering spring camp after starting one game and playing in 9 games as a true freshman. He gained 327 rushing yards and 48 receiving yards. Although he finished spring camp as the co-starter with fellow second year player Clarence Pittman, Jones entered the season as the third team TB and barely played. He finished fourth in rushing. With a crowded backfield of young TBs expected to get more crowed in summer camp, don't be surprised to see Jones switched to safety. Or possibly transfer.
Brad Cunningham was the surprise of the 2001 recruiting class. Though not highly touted, Cunningham had the biggest impact. When a knee injury sidelined the incumbent, Cunningham seized the starting WLB job and only nagging injuries limited his playing time. He started six games (and played in three others) and finished eighth in tackles (63) and third in TFLs (7). He brought playmaking ability noticeably lacking at LB. Expected to start at WLB in 2002, Cunningham quit school in summer for personal reasons, which included a lost passion for football. He rejoined the program – and re-enrolled in Rutgers – in January 2003. Schiano switched Cunningham to FB in a desire to upgrade the athleticism at the position. Given the lack of athleticism and experienced playmakers at LB, this move is questionable. I am disappointed that Cunningham won't be playing LB, where I know he can make a difference.
Brian Leonard redshirted as a freshman last season. With the ability to play TB, LB, or safety, Leonard's presence at FB is a further indication of Schiano's desire to obtain production from this neglected position. Leonard will be more than a blocking back. Expect Schiano to use Leonard much as Miami used converted TBs Najeh Davenport and Quadtrine Hill at FB as three-dimensional threats to block, run, or receive. With the switch of former starter Ray Pilch to TE, Leonard will battle for the starting FB job.
The backfield is much deeper and more talented than it was one year ago. Nonetheless, the RBs must show substantial improvement to give the young QBs a fighting chance for success with the passing game. How will new OC Ver Steeg use that talent and depth in spring camp?
With four young TBs competing for the starting job, playing time, and carries. The competition at TB likely will be the most intense of spring camp. How will the power running style of Nugent fair in contrast with more finesse styles of Pittman and Facyson? Blitz protection by the TBs was still a problem last season and will be an interesting topic for observation during spring camp.
The FB was slightly more productive last season. But not much. The FB position also offers more possibilities than it did a year ago. Schiano has moved more talent to FB. Will the FB become a viable threat in the offense?
Coming Next: Part 7 of my Spring Preview. Rutgers has been a pass-oriented team during the previous seven seasons. The replacement of former OC Bill Cubit with Ver Steeg likely will alter that philosophy. Ver Steeg has stated that he wants to build the offense around a power running game and a timing passing game. There isn't a single senior on the receiving corps. The receivers are now all Schiano recruits – the first such position to bear that distinction. They will be competing for fewer positions, fewer snaps, and fewer throws. How will they adapt to the new offensive philosophy.
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