SPRING PREVIEW – RUNNING BACKS
This article is the third of an eight-part preview of the Rutgers football team as it entered spring camp. The first two segments 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.
Not much was expected from the running game last year. The OLine lacked depth and desperately needed an infusion of talent, of which it received some but not enough. For the third consecutive year, the most promising TB was a true freshman. Some improvement was expected from the nation's worst rushing offense. But few predicted thunderstorms. New Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg brought an increased emphasis on power running. Head Coach Greg Schiano found not one, but two, feature TB who inspired memories of the Thunder (Bruce Presley) and Lightning (Terrell Willis) combination that electrified Rutgers fans almost 10 years ago. The TBs combined for 1,832 yards rushing, sixth in the Big East (up from last) and #67 in the nation (up from #117 and dead last). Furthermore, the FB position emerged as an offensive threat after languishing in a role player function for two years. The bar has been raised and competition for playing time among five TBs and three FBs will be more intense than ever.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
All players return from the two-deep.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- So TB Justise Hairston (4 GS, 8 GP, 137 carries for 550 yards, and 8 rushing TDs)
- RS So FB Brian Leonard (11 GS, 12 GP, 213 carries for 880 yards and 9 rushing TDs, plus 53 receptions for 488 yards and 5 receiving TDs)
- Jr TB Markis Facyson (3 GS, 11 GP, 42 rushes for 207 yards and 15 receptions for 171 yards and one receiving TD)
- Sr FB Cedric Brown (10 GP)
- RS Jr FB Ishmael Medley (1 GS, 10 GP, and 2 receptions for 6 yards)
Justise Hairston verbally committed to Schiano in 2001 but reneged on that commitment to Rutgers and signed a letter of intent with Iowa. When Hairston failed to qualify and enrolled in prep school, Schiano again offered Hairston a scholarship to Rutgers. This time, Hairston honored his commitment. Arriving a semester early, Hairston began working out informally with the team. When summer camp opened, Hairston immediately made an impression as the big back that Rutgers sorely lacked in 2002 and was named co-starter. With an imposing performance in the season opener, Hairston laid claim to the feature back role. However, a mid-season knee injury essentially ended his season. Hairston should reclaim the feature back role and starting TB job. After catching only one pass last season, will Hairston become a multi-purpose threat as Brian Leonard was when he replaced the injured Hairston as the starting TB?
Brian Leonard redshirted as a freshman in 2002. Leonard won the starting FB job in spring camp last year. Brian immediately demonstrated playmaking ability in the season opener and continued the production all season. He played FB, TB, and the single RB. He led the team in rushing yardage, receptions, and scoring. Big East coaches snubbed Leonard in naming West Virginia WR Chris Henry Big East Rookie of the Year. Expect Leonard to continue to see action at FB, TB, and RB. Leonard will be vying for All Big East honors again next season. Maybe the Big East coaches will actually put a FB on the all league team. That would be a novel idea, since most employ a FB in their base offense.
Markis Facyson emerged from summer camp in 2002 as the surprise starter, beating incumbent Marcus Jones and highly touted Clarence Pittman for the job as a true freshman. Facyson started the first four games before yielding to Pittman. Markis 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. A sprained knee cost him most of spring camp last year. A hamstring injury cost him most of summer camp and limited to him spot duty primarily as a slot back during he first half of the season. Once recovered, Facyson replaced Clarence Pittman as the change-of-pace backup TB. Facyson enters spring camp still trying to define his role in Ver Steeg's offense. His receiving ability allows Ver Steeg to use Facyson as a multi-purpose threat as a TB and a slot back. How will Facyson be used this spring? And can he maintain his backup 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 in 2002 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. The emergence of Brian Leonard as a playmaker at FB relegated Brown to the backup FB role, which he shared with Ishmael Medley. A knee injury to Hairston – whom Schiano replaced with Leonard – opened playing time at FB over the final five games of the season. However, Brown again was strictly a blocker – no carries and no receptions. Brown will continue to battle with Medley for the backup FB job.
Ishmael Medley was one of seven freshmen to be redshirted in 2001. Despite severe roster attrition at LB, Medley was unable to break the two-deep in 2002, being unseated by two true freshmen. Medley broke the two-deep at MLB in spring camp last year by almost by default as Schiano lacked LBs. However, the influx of new talent in the summer and the switch of Brad Cunningham back to LB after a spring experiment at FB rendered Medley surplus at LB. Schiano moved Medley to FB in summer camp. He shared backup duties with Cedric Brown. Medley received more playing time when Leonard replaced the injured Hairston at TB. Whereas Leonard was a playmaker at FB, Medley was strictly a blocker. Medley will compete with Brown for repetitions as the backup FB. Will he become more of an offensive threat to keep opposing defenses honest?
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- Sr TB Clarence Pittman (3 GS, 9 GP, 52 rushes for 195 yards and one TD)
- Sr TB Marcus Jones (redshirted)
Clarence Pittman was academically ineligible in 2001 but practiced with the scout team. Witnesses observing practice touted Pittman as clearly the best TB on the team. As one of only two returning TBs, Pittman emerged from spring camp in 2002 as the co-starter alongside Marcus Jones. Nagging injuries in summer camp cost Pittman the starting job when the season opened but he started six of the final seven games. Pittman led the team in rushing attempts and finished second in rushing yardage. Pittman performed poorly in spring camp last year but was generously listed as the co-starter at the conclusion of camp. Despite an unimpressive summer camp, Pittman still held the co-starter role as the season opened. However, the arrival of Hairston and the increased emphasis on power running between the tackles quickly relegated Pittman to the backup role. As the season progressed, Clarence slipped to the #4 TB slot on the depth chart. Pittman has had a year to adapt to the new power running game and get stronger. One would imagine that an increased emphasis on running outside this year would benefit Pittman. Can Clarence become the TB he was hyped to be?
Marcus Jones started one game and played in 9 games as a true freshman in 2001 as the third leading rusher. He was the only experienced TB entering spring camp in 2002. Although he finished spring camp as the co-starter with fellow second year player Pittman, Jones entered the 2002 season as the third team TB, barely played, and finished fourth in rushing. Jones was expected to get buried on the depth chart last spring. Or switched to safety. Or transfer out of Rutgers to a lower division school to get more playing time. Instead, Jones was the best and most consistent performer at TB in spring and summer camp last year. Yet he was still buried on the depth chart. Jones redshirted last season but Schiano's continually improving recruiting is likely to increase the logjam at TB, now four deep (not counting FB/TB/RB Leonard). Will Jones get a fair chance to compete?
The competition for playing time will be intense this spring since Schiano is no longer looking for "the guy" but has found a few "guys". The implementation of a new offensive system last season and the influx of new talent contributed tremendously to that solution. However, there are still plenty of questions at the RB positions. Of particular interest in spring camp will be the following:
- Will Ver Steeg emphasize running outside this spring after running almost exclusively between the tackles last season?
- Will the FB become a running threat?
- Will the starting TB (Hairston) or backup FBs (Brown/Medley) be receiving threats out of the backfield?
- Will Hairston be used as a receiver as well as a runner? On screen passes or safety valve passes?
- Will Leonard play TB in addition to FB and RB (one back set)?
- Will Facyson's role continue to evolve as a multi-purpose, multi-positional threat as Ver Steeg implements the rest of his offense this spring?
- Have Pittman and Jones been lapped on the depth chart by younger, more talented players?
Coming Next: Part 4 of my Spring Preview. Ver Steeg's offense de-emphasized the passing game to create better balance with the running game and de-emphasized the WRs as the focus of the passing game. Without the three leading receivers, since departed, and with no seniors, the focus upon balance and pass distribution nonetheless resulted in better performances by the WRs. Injured players returned. Young players stepped forward. And the gaping void at TE was filled with a four-man rotation. The receiving corps returns intact. As at RB, competition on the depth chart and for repetitions will be fierce.
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