Big Ten Bound: Running Backs & Fullbacks

Rutgers football ended 2013 with the disappointment of a bowl loss at Yankee Stadium and a losing record, but has every reason to be excited for 2014. Arguably the national champion of conference realignment, the Scarlet Knights are set to join the Big Ten, and is here to look ahead position by position.

Today looks in-depth at the running backs and fullbacks. Rutgers saw three different tailbacks put up big rushing numbers in 2013, and was happy to have a healthy Michael Burton paving the way as the starting fullback. All of the key faces are back at the position, and looking to step forward into the Big Ten.

In 2013

What Went Right -- Former walk-on Paul James was the story of the year when it comes to Rutgers football. James led the nation in rushing through four games, highlighted by his breakout game – 182 yards against Fresno State. True freshman Justin Goodwin went straight from Group 1 Public football to on-field impact at Rutgers. Goodwin displayed inconsistencies, but stole the show in a 55-52 victory over SMU. Goodwin ran for 149 yards through three overtimes, including the 17-yard game winner where he broke three tackles. On a whole, Rutgers showed it can be productive in the run game without Jawan Jamison, who left for the NFL.

What Went Wrong -- James missed out on scholarship offers because of injuries in high school, and his health became a problem yet again in 2013. When James went down against Arkansas, so did running back production and the overall quality of the offense. Rutgers went 2-2 without James, and lost four of its last five with James not at full strength. Goodwin made freshman mistakes. He struggled to stay on the field because of inconsistencies in his pass protection. As a junior, Savon Huggins averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. His role by the end of the season became simply a third-down back and pass protector. Coach Kyle Flood experimented with Burton as a tailback, which was generally unsuccessful.

Heading to the Big Ten

Reason for Excitement -- Everyone is back. James has a chance to become a true Big Ten running back with an expected feature role in 2014. Huggins is a power runner and hard worker that can find opportunities. With more seasoning, look for Goodwin to play more consistently within the playbook. Spring practice will be a major developmental opportunity for Goodwin, and provides rising sophomore Desmon Peoples to bounce back from limited looks last season. The best news for the running game comes in Burton, who will be one of the best fullbacks in the Big Ten as a senior. Burton is captain material and opens up holes like the best of them.

Cause for Concern -- Can James stay healthy? The injuries are starting to pile up, and already cost him four games as a sophomore and the chance to play as a red-shirt freshman. There is no denying that Rutgers is a better offense with James at running back, but the backup options need to be ready to go. The Scarlet Knights were still able to move the ball with James injured in 2013, but Huggins, Goodwin and Peoples have to step things up because the defenses only get better in the Big Ten.

New Year's Resolution -- Stick with the running game longer. Rutgers is a run-first team, but has a tendency to get away from it too early in games. There are times when throwing is the only option, but when the run is working, stick with it – especially with a turnover-prone quarterback.

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