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.
Last year, the running game was expected to build upon its surprising success in 2003. The OLine returned four experienced starters and the backfield returned intact. However, struggles across the OLine and throughout the backfield quickly turned a promising start into a season of disappointment. The returning starter at TB, injured midway through 2003, lost his job in summer camp and quickly fell out of the rotation. The starting FB took more snaps at TB with the resulting limitations to the offense. Head Coach Greg Schiano tried five different players at TB and five at FB. By the end of the season, the 2003 starters switched positions – the former starter TB was now the starting FB. The RBs combined for 1,018 yards rushing (down from 1,832 yards last year), last in the Big East (down from sixth) and #113 in the nation (down from #67).
Schiano is back to where he was two years ago. He needs to find a feature TB. Preferably, one who isn't a FB. Schiano moved RB Coach Darren Rizzi over to defense to coach the linebackers and replaced Rizzi with former Illinois WR Coach Robert Jackson. Jackson inherits a backfield in disarray. The playing rotation was so convoluted, there really wasn't a fixed two deep. Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg must better mix the playcalling, which was predictable. The personnel often dictated the type of run. The big TBs primarily ran inside. The smaller TBs primarily ran outside. Passes were rarely thrown to some FBs.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Cedric Brown (5 GS and 11 GP) is the only RB lost off the depth chart. As a true freshman, Cedric – recruited as a LB – was switched from LB to DT during 2001 summer camp after the unplanned departure of four DL and saw limited action as a third team DT. Brown moved back to LB for 2002 spring camp but Schiano later switched Cedric to FB, where he saw action in the short yardage formation. Cedric was strictly a blocker and rarely saw action in regular formations, much less the ball. Although the emergence of Brian Leonard as a playmaker at FB relegated Brown to a backup FB role, which he shared with Ishmael Medley, Leonard's frequent use at TB created more playing time at FB the past two seasons. However, Brown was strictly a blocker – no carries and no receptions. Cedric's short yardage blocking will be missed but Schiano needs more athleticism – and production – from his regular FB.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- RS Jr FB Brian Leonard (10 GS, 199 carries for 732 yards and 7 rushing TDs, plus 61 receptions for 518 yards and 2 receiving TDs)
- Jr FB Justise Hairston (3 GS, 9 GP, 53 carries for 146 yards and 17 receptions for 105 yards)
- Sr TB Clarence Pittman (11 GP, 15 rushes for 52 yards)
Brian Leonard redshirted as a freshman in 2002. Leonard immediately seized the starting FB job in 2002 spring camp demonstrated playmaking ability not shown by a Rutgers FB since 1999. He played FB, TB, and the single RB. Brian led the team in rushing yardage, receptions, and scoring. Leonard emerged as a surprise starter at TB last year and also played FB and the single RB. He was the only TB to produce although his inability to run outside allowed opposing defenses to stack the middle to stop him. Leonard is not a TB. He belongs at FB and the single RB, where his pass catching ability can force opponents to respect the outside that may not necessarily be threatened by the running game.
Justise Hairston failed to qualify in 2002 and enrolled in prep school. Hairston began working out informally with the Rutgers team a semester early. He quickly laid claim to the feature back role as a freshman in 2003. However, a mid-season knee injury ended his season. Expected to reclaim the feature back role and starting TB job in 2004, Hairston lost his starting job to Leonard in summer camp. After an unimpressive month as the backup TB where he repeatedly ran to the wrong hole, Justise slid off the depth chart until he re-emerged at FB late in the season. He started the season finale at FB. Unless Justise can demonstrate the ability to run to the proper hole, he will likely remain at FB. Assuming that he doesn't transfer after the spring semester, Hairston will need to put on an additional 10 to 20 pounds to play FB. However, he has shown the ability to block. Other than Leonard, Hairston offers the best combination of size, athleticism, and experience at FB.
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 in 2002 as the co-starter. Pittman started six games in 2002; he led the team in rushing attempts and finished second in rushing yardage. Pittman performed poorly in 2003 spring camp and unimpressively in 2003 summer camp but 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 had a solid spring and summer camp last year but never really received a legitimate chance to prove himself once the season started. He did not see appreciable action until October and earned the bulk of his carries in two games. Clarence regained his lost year of eligibility in the classroom and apparently will return for a fifth season even though he is not expected to crack the two deep. Pittman may yet contribute. But he can't prove himself without an opportunity. Something less experienced players received ahead of him.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Sr FB Ishmael Medley (10 GP and 4 receptions for 27 yards)
- Sr TB Markis Facyson (1 GS, 9 GP, 20 rushes for 52 yards and 6 receptions for 39 yards)
- So FB Jean Beljour (1 GS, 10 GP, and 3 receptions for 29 yards)
- So TB Dimitri Linton (9 GP and 11 rushes for 40 yards)
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. The influx of new talent in 2003 rendered Medley surplus at LB, so Schiano moved Medley to FB in summer camp. Ishmael shared backup duties with Brown and, like Cedric, received more playing time when Leonard replaced the injured Hairston at TB. Medley was one of five FBs to see action last season. He was again used almost exclusively as a blocker even though he gained good yardage on his rare pass receiving opportunities. Medley is likely to be relegated to the short-yardage FB with the switch of Hairston to FB and the expected emergence of Beljour.
Markis Facyson emerged as the surprise starter in 2002 as a true freshman. Facyson started the first four games, leading the team in rushing yardage and the RBs in receiving yardage. A sprained knee cost him most of 2003 spring camp. 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 2003 season. Once recovered, Facyson assumed the change-of-pace backup TB job behind Leonard, where he averaged over 5 yards per carry. Markis again missed most of 2004 spring camp with a nagging knee injury. He was ineffective in change of pace role last season and dropped out of the playing rotation after the first month. After running strongly in 2003, he was tentative and soft last year. Schiano desperately needs playmaking ability at TB. However, Markis will again miss spring camp with a knee injury.
Jean Beljour was expected to redshirt behind three experienced FBs. However, he immediately saw action on special teams. The move of Leonard to TB took athleticism and playmaking away from the FB position. In an effort to put more athleticism on the field, Schiano tried Beljour at FB. Jean first saw action against Syracuse while Leonard was injured. But Beljour's snaps were severely limited thereafter, especially once Schiano switched Hairston to FB. Given his limited snaps at FB, Beljour would have been better served by redshirting. Jean will compete for a spot on the two-deep in an as-yet still muddled backfield that has no apparent pecking order.
Dimitri Linton was a highly touted recruit out of Florida who drew strong interest after committing early to Rutgers. Also expected to redshirt in a crowded backfield, Linton surprisingly played ahead of the more experienced Pittman. Although Dimitri played early, he did not get extensive carries and therefore really didn't get a chance to prove himself. Like Beljour, Linton would have been better off redshirting. Linton will also miss spring camp with a knee injury.
Schiano has spent four years searching for a feature TB and has yet to find one. He has played an average of 4.5 players at TB each season. Schiano's impatient handling has shuttled players through the TB position without allowing them to get comfortable carrying the ball. There are still plenty of questions at the RB positions. Of particular interest in spring camp will be the following:
- Will Leonard play FB, where he belongs, or TB for lack of other viable options?
- Will Hairston return to TB or will he stay at FB? If at TB, is he running to the correct hole?
- Will the TBs run outside this spring after running almost exclusively between the tackles last season?
- Can the big backs run outside? Can the small backs run inside?
- Will the FB become a running threat? Will all of the FBs be used as receivers?
- What will the depth chart look like?
- Who will emerge as the change of pace back if Schiano starts a big back?
- Has Pittman been lapped on the depth chart by younger, more talented players?
Coming Next: Part 4 of my Spring Preview. Last season, Rutgers possessed arguably the best receiving corps in the Big East with two First Team All-Big East selections. The passing game carried the offense. The receiving corps, the best unit on the team last year, returns nearly intact.
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