Well, I nearly finished my spring football preview before the end of the spring semester. Nearly. This article is the fifth 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. Next up are 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 at the outset of spring camp. The article also identifies issues that needed to be addressed in spring practice and were observed by fans at the practices and scrimmages. This belated preview still offers some useful insights into spring camp because it allows the reader, with a post-camp perspective, to answer questions developed before camp opened.
To describe the Rutgers backfield last season as "RB by committee" would be generous. "Anarchy" would be the more apt description. Four different players started at TB; two players started at FB. Five different TBs had game-high rushing totals. Yet the leading rusher gained only 372 yards. Blitz protection was poor. Receiving yardage was minimal – 165 yards on 24 receptions for a paltry 6.9 yards per catch average. The FB position was a mess as the team entered the season with only two FBs on the roster. While many players saw action at TB, FB was virtually an afterthought in offense. Injuries forced Head Coach Greg Schiano to employ TEs as FBs. The bad news is that the backfield lost much of its depth. The good news is that there are plenty of openings in the backfield for new players to contribute.
PLAYERS LOST FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players lost off the two-deep include:
· TB Dennis Thomas (4 GS, 10 GP, 97 rushes for 372 yd, and 4 rec for 25 yd)
· TB Ravon Anderson (4 GS, 7 GP, 69 rushes for 363 yd, and 13 rec for 87 yd)
· FB Seth Stanton (9 GS and 2 rushes for 7 yards)
Dennis Thomas was a fixture in the backfield for four seasons. An injury to the starting TB provided Thomas with the opportunity to start as a freshman. Thomas started 6 games, played in every game, and finished second in rushing with 418 yards on 108 carries. Thomas was switched to FB as a sophomore to get him on the field more. He started every game, gained 180 yards rushing on 37 carries and 192 yards receiving on 19 catches. Thomas was switched back to HB as a junior and started 9 games, played in every game, gained 587 yards rushing on 137 carries, and caught 21 passes 223 yards. With a true freshman QB, Thomas was expected to be the offensive workhorse last season. It didn't happen. An early knee injury sidelined him for a game and then other problems subsequently buried him on the roster. Thomas closed his career with a whimper. His versatility and experience will be missed.
Ravon Anderson transferred to Rutgers from junior college after a two-year stay at the University of North Carolina. A highly touted high school recruit, Anderson did not live up to expectations as a junior. He was able to unseat neither incumbent on the depth chart. Anderson played in only 8 games, gained a measly 56 yards on 28 carries, and caught 4 passes for 16 yards. Having earned the moniker "TFL", Anderson seemed destined for oblivion with two freshmen added to the depth chart at TB. But Anderson persevered. As Schiano struggled weekly to find a TB that could give him consistent production, Anderson eventually got his chance. After four DNPs, Anderson registered the team's second high single game output with 163 yards rushing in Game 5. Anderson started four of the remaining six games and finished as the team's second leading rusher for the season. As with Thomas, Anderson's experience will be missed.
Seth Stanton was primarily used on special teams and short yardage situations. He was a blocking back for a team that eschewed power football. Not exactly a match made in football heaven. Over his career, Stanton started 11 games, played in 38 games, gained 54 yards on 18 carries. In order to get some productivity from the FB position, Schiano was compelled to line up TE LJ Smith at FB. Stanton's absence won't be missed.
RETURNING PLAYERS FROM THE TWO-DEEP
Players returning off of the two-deep include:
- So Marcus Jones (1 GS, 9 GP, 101 rushes for 327 yd, and 6 rec for 48 yd)
- So Ray Pilch (2 GS and 8 GP)
Marcus Jones is the only experienced, productive backfield player returning this season. Jones started the season as the 3rd string TB but eventually played his way onto the 2nd team. Jones ran hard and took care of the football – two things that appeal to Schiano. Jones fumbled only once in his final 94 rushing attempts. Jones' biggest weakness was his blitz protection. With three seniors lost off the depth chart, Jones will be competing for the starting TB job.
Ray Pilch walked on to the team as a freshman last season. With OC Bill Cubit using multiple TE formations (as many as 3TEs) and using TEs at FB, Pilch had an opportunity to play. He started the season as the 3rd team TE but was switched to FB because of depth concerns. Pilch started 2 games at FB. Schiano permanently switched Pilch to FB for spring camp. Pilch will be battling Troy Marion for the starting job.
NEW CANDIDATES FOR THE TWO-DEEP
Players trying to crack the two-deep include:
- RS Fr TB Clarence Pittman (academically ineligible)
- RS So FB Troy Marion (4 GP)
- Sr FB Ron Simone (4 GP).
Clarence Pittman was academically ineligible last season but was able to practice with the team. Reports from several sources indicated that Pittman was the best TB on the team. Such reports have raised expectations for Pittman entering spring camp. As one of only two returning TBs, Pittman will get plenty of practice repetitions. Pittman will battle Marcus Jones for the starting TB job.
Troy Marion was one of only 8 recruits from the 2000 class to be redshirted as a freshman. With Shea running the spread offense, there wasn't a need for depth at FB. New OC Bill Cubit also employed a form of the spread offense last season. Formations overweighted with TEs and WRs de-emphasized the FB. Though only one of two FBs in the program, Marion nonetheless was limited to special teams duty as Schiano elected to use TEs at FB rather than Marion. With the departure of Stanton and the transfer of Rikki Cook, Marion enters spring camp competing with converted TE Ray Pilch for the starting FB job. If Marion doesn't establish himself on the two-deep in spring, he can be written off for the future.
Ron Simone is at his fourth position in four years. Simone played 6 games at LB and on special teams as a freshman. With the exception of a 13-tackle effort against Virginia Tech, he was a non-contributor. Shea switched Simone to backup NG midway through the 2000 season even though the LB corps was decimated by injuries. Simone played in only 2 games and again was a non-contributor. Last season, Schiano switched Simone to backup DE. Simone again was a non-contributor as three undersized true freshmen played ahead of him. Schiano announced that Simone would be switched to FB for spring camp. What are the chances of him seeing significant playing time given the opportunities he has had previously?
The backfield will have a very different look as two young TBs assume the primary ball carrying responsibilities while new players compete for playing time (and carries and receptions) at FB. The battle between Pittman and Jones for the starting TB job may be the most interesting contest in spring camp. The progress of FB Troy Marion will also be interesting to observe.
Coming Next: Part 7 of my Spring Preview. Since the arrival of Terry Shea six years ago, Rutgers has been a pass-oriented team. The replacement of Shea with OC Bill Cubit has not altered that philosophy appreciably. However, given this extended emphasis upon the passing game, first with the west coast offense and then with the spread offenses, Rutgers has not exactly been loaded at WR or TE in either talent or depth. Talent and depth at WR is still a big concern.
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