Spring Camp Guide - Running Backs

The Texas A&M ground game finally produced a 1,000 yard rusher in 2010 when Cyrus Gray ended a long program drought. Aggie Websider contributor Jeffrey Jennings takes a look at the running back position and what to expect during speing camp and the off-season leading up to the 2011 season

The Texas A&M ground game finally produced a 1,000 yard rusher in 2010 when Cyrus Gray ended a drought that had more to do with the program's offensive line struggles than a lack of running back talent. In fact had it not been for Christine Michael breaking his leg in the eighth game of the season, the Aggies very well may have had two rushers top the 1,000 yard mark.

With veteran starters returning at all five positions on the line, and with what should be a productive passing attack, look for the Aggie ground game to really kick it up a notch. It's not out of the question to see both young men hit that 1,000 yard milestone in 2011 and in the process provide the Texas A&M offense with a balanced and very productive attack. In this piece we'll take a look at both feature backs as well as the supporting cast who's development will be very important as A&M will lose Gray to graduation and possibly Michael to the NFL Draft.

Feature Backs

Cyrus Gray really turned a corner last season, running much more decisively and hitting the hole with purpose. He honestly looked like a completely different back compared to his first two seasons. Still, while he was productive early in the year and made the most of his carries (roughly six yards per attempt) Christine Michael was getting most of the touches as the starter. However, when Michael went down against Texas Tech, Gray elevated his game and was instrumental in the Aggie's overwhelming success in the second half of the season. He closed the year running for 1,133 yards on 200 carries (5.7 ypc and 12 TD's), with seven consecutive 100 plus yard games (against the likes of OU, Nebraska and LSU).

One of the fastest members of the team (he's been clocked as low as 4.38), Cyrus is also a shifty runner, with great balance, and big play potential, powerful enough to run through arm tackles and capable of breaking off the big run at any point as he did in Austin last year. Like most great ones, he's the kind of back that gets stronger as the game wears on and wants to have the ball in his hands when it matters. In addition to his running ability, he is a dependable blocker and has great hands out of the backfield (the last two seasons he's averaged 31 grabs for 238 yards and he caught nine passes for 65 yards against Nebraska in 2010) making him a surefire option on passing downs.

His status as a team leader is unquestioned, but he's pushing himself hard in preparation for what will be a spirited but friendly competition in the off-season with a healthy Christine Michael. His character off the field is only matched by his work ethic. and he's been one of the top performers in the off-season. In the recent Pro Day Event, Gray showed up with added muscle and bulk to his frame (and power to his game).

Coming off of a broken tibia injury, Christine Michael will be ready for camp and re-immersing himself in the run game, but fans and coaches will be keeping a close on eye on the hard working youngster this spring to see if there‘s any lingering effects from the inuury. I expect no hiccups but bouncing back from these types of injuries can affect a players confidence. No doubt a physical runner like Michael will land on his feet (no pun intended) but it will be interesting when the full contact drills start if he stays true to his violent running style, hitting the hole quick, hard, and decisive.

Last August he checked in at a well chiseled 217-pounds and was squatting an amazing 650 pounds, so while he's been working hard, it will also be worth noting to see where his body and strength are in 2011 relative to last year. The dynamic game breaking back seamlessly blends a rare balance power and shiftiness and really added a new dimension to his game in 2010 by working on his hands last off-season (an effort that paid off in him making 13 grabs for 174 yards, 13 yards per catch) but he also put the ball on the ground four times in the first five games, losing two of them. It happens time to time with backs that run as violent as he does but it's something that really needs to be remedied. Michael should quickly regain his blue chip form, but given the situation, he definitely is on the list of players to follow closely this spring.

Getting a lot of work in spring will be sophomore-to-be Ben Malena, who possesses patience and great vision, and when he sees his lane, makes no haste in cutting upfield. Ben is a squatty changeup option that can get low, and run well behind his pads. He is perfect in short yardage and goal-line situations, and is the type of back that gains yards on every carry. Malena is fast enough to make the 10-15 yard gainers, but doesn't have the speed to pull away from the pack. He also has great hands out of the backfield, and is a willing and able blocker. Again he should benefit from extensive reps this spring, and is a valuable member of the backfield, well worth keeping an eye on.

Also getting a lot of work in the next few weeks will be big back Mister Jones who proved to be a project last August, but the 6'2, 210-pounder has great upside and his progress will be worth noting as well. It's also important to note that in August, A&M will have the services of speed back Will Randolph, a 2011 recruit from Copperas Cove. Versatile incoming freshman Howard Matthews will likely see some reps as a short yardage back in August, which highlights the lack of a go-to guy in this area for the spring. For that reason, the staff has talked to former preferred walk-on Jay Tolliver about returning to the team.

Running Back Overall

The Aggie backfield will have the luxury of a dominating offensive line and what should be a prominent passing attack in 2011. The blue chip play-makers at halfback, both have a good shot at eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark and no doubt will lend their hand in making A&M one of the nations most balanced and feared offensive units.

However, the unit is thin and any major injuries to either Gray or Michael could be a concern for the team. There is no concern about the talent. The key is to stay healthy.

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