Fall Camp Preview - Running Back

We're less than a week away from the start of fall training camp and the Aggie Websider continues to get you ready for the 2011 season. Jeffrey Jennings takes a look at the running back position. Can Cyrus Gray match his 1000 yard effort in 2010? Will Christine Michael be back to his old form after last year's broken leg? Who will emerge as the No. 3 running back?

On an offense projected to be one of the best in the nation, the running back tandem of Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael arguably form the best unit on that side of the ball. Inarguably, they are amongst the best backfield tandems in the nation, and will lend their collective hand to an offense, that for two years has proven itself as one of the country's most productive and on paper looks to be even stronger in 2011.

Last season, the two backs selflessly played off of each other, and were one of the few steady areas on an offense that was dealing with an unexpected issue at quarterback, and a young developing offensive line early in the year. However, just as those areas were picking up at the midway point of the season, A&M was dealt a blow when Christine Michael suffered a broken leg against Texas Tech. While a potential depth issue was exposed, Cyrus Gray stood up strong, and closed the season with a brilliant flourish, single-handedly carrying the backfield, proving himself as one of the premiere backs in the nation, and giving the Aggies their first 1,000 yard rusher since 2003. In all honesty, had it not been for Michael breaking his leg in the eighth game of the season, both rushers would have likely topped that mark (Christine was at 653 yards with 5 games left).

However, it wasn't meant to be, and entering a new season, the duo is back at full strength, and should provide balance for an offense that looks to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night. With most of the offensive line intact from a year ago, look for the Aggie ground game to kick it up a notch with the possibility of both backs hitting that 1,000 yard milestone in 2011.

We'll take a deeper look at both feature backs, as well as the supporting cast who's development will be vital, as A&M will lose Gray to graduation and possibly Michael to the NFL Draft following the season. As witnessed last year, two great backs can get whittled down to one in an instant.

Feature Backs

Having proven himself late last season, coaches used Cyrus Gray sparingly in spring, while Christine Michael slowly worked his way back into action, and the staff sought answers and development for depth. Before Gray single-handedly carried the backfield at the midway point last year, the proverbial light-bulb came on last off-season, running much more decisively, waiting for the hole to develop, and flashing improved acceleration. In short, he looked like a completely different back than he'd shown in his first two seasons. Early in the season, he was making the most of his carries (roughly 6 ypc), but when Michael went down, Gray elevated his game and was highly instrumental in the Aggies' overwhelming success throughout the second half of the year, closing with 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).

While the coaches used him cautiously in the off-season, he was anything but idle as he has pushed himself hard for his final season in Aggieland with reports that he's added more bulk and speed as he seeks to raise his NFL Draft stock. Already powerful enough to run through arm tackles, Gray actually won a team award for strength and conditioning, and having seen him up close and in person recently, it's clear he has been putting in the work, adding a lot of muscle to his frame (up to about 205 pounds). The added power hasn't slowed him down a step, as he is one of the fastest players on the roster (4.38, 40), is an explosive shifty runner, possesses great balance, and is capable of breaking off the big run at any point as seen in the regular season finale against Texas. Like all the great ones, he gets stronger with every carry as he finds his rhythm, and wants the ball in his hands when it counts.

In addition to the obvious skill set, he is a dependable blocker and has great hands out of the backfield. The past two seasons he's averaged 31 catches for 238 yards, including nine receptions for 65 yards against Nebraska. Both facets making him a dependable option on passing downs, and his role in the passing game could increase a good deal in 2011. Cyrus was the conference's leading rusher in 2010, and enters the year as pre-season All-Big XII running back. Also, with Michael back in action, look for his role as a kick-returner to resume, as he is part of another explosive pairing with Coryell Judie. Gray is a special back, that's about to have a special year, which is going to serve his team and his NFL draft status well.

While the staff played it safe with Gray in spring, they wisely used a different approach with Christine Michael, getting him reacquainted with the violence of football by giving him the bulk of the work. As could be expected, the junior started camp a little tentative coming off of his broken tibia, but closed the last two weeks strong, and truly looked like himself again, with his violent, "straight at you" running style, hitting the hole quick, hard, and decisive, and even displayed his unreal "circle-button" spin move. To relate it to real life, it's kind of like being in a car crash and getting behind the wheel again. He had to regain his confidence, and once he got it back, it was business as usual. What's more he'll be hungry in 2011.

Like Gray, he is turning heads in the weight room and is stronger now than he was before he broke his leg. That is pretty impressive considering last August he checked in at a well chiseled 217-pounds and was squatting an amazing 650 pounds. In addition to his dynamic, game breaking style, that blends a rare balance power and shiftiness, he improved his hands a great deal last year (an effort that paid off with 13 receptions for 174 yards, 13 yards per catch). Michael will need to improve his blocking, which he's slowly done year by year to date. Also, his violent running style resulted in four fumbles in the first five games last season, so protecting the ball will be critical for Michael in the 201 season. That said, there is no doubt that "C-Mike" is a naturally gifted runner, and with the ball in his hands is going to be a huge headache for opposing defenders in 2011.

So Who Gets The Carries?

Fortunately for the Aggies, not only do they have one of the top tandems in the country, they are in the extremely rare position of both backs being great friends, with their egos well in check. That makes it a lot easier on coaches, for which team is clearly the number one priority. Given the unit's hurry-up style, Coach Sherman foresaw no real problem while discussing the matter recently at the Big XII media day, "I've been thinking a lot about how I will use both guys," said Sherman. "We're getting 85-90 snaps a game, so there is plenty of opportunity for both guys to make an impact. They have two distinctive styles and defenses will have to account for that. In the end, it won't be a major issue."

While he didn't go into specifics, it's safe to say that given the way he closed the season, Gray will get a slight edge in the balance, in the neighborhood of 60%-40%, give or take. One thing that will have bearing is which guy is heating up. Both are better when they get their rhythm and if one is feeling it on a particular Saturday, he'll likely be getting the higher percentage, and as Randy Jordan said, "It's a good problem to have." Like last year, fans will have to watch it play out, but again Cyrus will probably have a slight edge, and either way, the Aggies will be in great shape.

Depth

While you couldn't buy a better one-two punch than Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael if you had your own TV network, last year showed just how quick two can become one, and a team can find itself in a fairly precarious situation in short order. A&M currently needs a number three back to step up, and to be brutally honest there is no clear-cut answer as of this writing. While Ben Malena and Mister Jones got a lot of work in the spring, neither runner emerged as a favorite to assume the No. 3 spot.

While Malena has the ability to make a 10-15 yard gainer if he squirts lose, he simply doesn't have the speed required to break a long run in the open field which is a limitation at this level. If it's purely a short yardage back they need, preferred walk-on Jay Tolliver appears up for the role. He's a gutsy, hard-nosed effort back, in the vein of past unsung Aggie, Keondra Smith, and is very easy to pull for when you observe him on the practice field, as he drives his legs with fierce determination on every single rep. However, if called on, his role would be very limited. Mister Jones has always been a project and if he sticks with it, could find a nice niche for himself as a power back with decent speed, but he is very raw and needs to work on his running style and technique. If he can learn to run behind his pads, get three points of contact on the ball, and clean up his unorthodox mechanics, he could be something as an upperclassman, but he's got work to go before he can be called on.

That leaves one very promising true freshman candidate, Will Randolph from Copperas Cove High School. He's getting praise from his peers in summer workouts and physically looks the part of a physically mature collegiate running back. He is not only a burner with legitimate 4.4-speed, but is equally explosive in and out of breaks. In addition, Will is a feisty runner that won't have to learn to hit the hole hard, and is a deceptive load to bring down, given his stature, proving great leg drive and determination on each carry. If he can get the edge, he has something only Gray and Michael have in this stable, and that's the ability to break the big one from any point on the field. He looks to block well in his high school film, but we'll see soon how that translates to this level as he clearly needs to add strength. He also has good hands. Those two attributes make him a great option on third or passing downs (a back that can block and catch). The next few weeks will tell a lot about this young man and where the Aggies find themselves in their search for depth, but it looks like they may have gotten a steal in Randolph. The newcomer's work will also serve him well as he works his way into the fray in 2012 with Christine Michael, and five-star, blue-chip freshman tailback Trey Williams.

Fullback

While the Aggies don't employ a full-time fullback, Michael Lamothe has proven himself as very valuable in the role of H-Back (TE/FB) much like Jamie McCoy before him. Sophomore TE Nehemiah Hicks will also likely see time, and be quite effective in the same role.

Running Back Overall

In 2011, Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael will have the luxury of running behind a highly-touted offensive line, which now has experience to compliment its talent. In addition they will also benefit greatly from what should be a prominent, consistent passing attack and a balanced offense that should spread defenses. Both blue chip play-makers at halfback, have a shot at eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark, and no doubt will lend their hand in making A&M one of the most balanced and feared offensive units in the country.


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