Fall Camp Guide 2012 - Running Backs

With players reporting to fall camp later this week, it's time to preview the 2012 Aggie football team. Aggie Websider contributor Jeffrey Jennings takes a position-by-position look at what to expect this season. Today he analyzes the running back situation.

Even in down years, Texas A&M has never lacked top-notch talent in the backfield. However, the last two seasons have underscored the importance of depth. As witnessed, two great running backs can get whittled down to one, and one can likewise become none in an instant. On the bright side, Christine Michael has proven two off-seasons in a row, what a freakishly quick healer he is. Michael would have been a go for the entirety of spring had it not been for wise precaution of the staff. He will enter fall camp at full strength.

Michael will be joined by fellow blue-chip Brandon Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma in the spring. Upon his arrival, Williams immediately proved his worth as an elite running back. In fact, many observers feel that Williams may be the best overall player on the team after his dominant spring performance. Expected to contribute immediately is high school all-American Trey Williams who will push for time early, especially if Brandon Williams redshirts do to his transfer. While he may not boast the same ribbons on his chest, there is no overlooking Ben Malena. He was given a huge opportunity, and for his part, did an exceptional job in the final game of the season against Texas and in the bowl game against Northwestern. Rounding out the pack with a year under his belt is Will Randolph, who put together a quiet but productive spring, and Oregon big back transfer Tra Carson.

The stable took advantage of the extra work in April, and will bring their talents to Kevin Sumlin's high-octane offensive attack. The SEC has long been a league that "rewards those who run, and punishes those who can't or won't". Fortunately for the Aggies, a common misconception of this system is that it's solely an air-attack. However, as Coach Sumlin asserted at the SEC Media Days, the balance of play-calling is a lot closer to 55% to 45% (pass to run ratio). It was also obvious to observers at the spring scrimmages, in his utilization of two-back sets, especially inside the ten-yard line. Translation, yes A&M will be throwing the ball frequently, but this isn't Mike Leach's offense. There will also be more than enough carries to go around for this talented backfield. Further, their paths will be paved by an experienced offensive line considered to be one of the best in the SEC. After seeing the foundation laid for this offense in spring, the Aggie backs have to be salivating over the room they'll have to make plays on the edges, especially toward the slot, and in the space created.

Here we'll examine the finer points of each back, what they bring to the table, and just how they project to fit into, perhaps the most important season the Aggies have entered to date.


Running Backs

Coaches, fans, observers, and even NFL scouts know what they have in Christine Michael. He's a runner that brings a rare blend of upper-end power, speed, and quickness. Halfbacks that are great at one aspect, but are just really good at the other are a dime a dozen, but he truly excels in all facets. As can be expected from a player that works as hard as Michael, he has come a long way with his pass protection and his hands, and should thrive in this offense. About the only thing you can add to his attributes, is "freakishly quick-healer". Two years in a row he has come back from devastating leg injuries in record time. The latest, an ACL tear, was suffered late in the 2011 season (he still managed 899 yards, 6 ypc, 9 TD's, with a month left in the season).

While many assumed the injury would prevent him from hitting his stride prior to the 2012 season, he is actually 100% ready now, as Coach Sumlin recently confirmed. Given his senior status, and recent injuries, it's no secret he's bent on proving himself in the SEC and to NFL suitors. Considered one of the nation's elite backs, expect the 223-pound Michael to run like a cornered animal this season, which is essentially his running style on an average Saturday. For his injury-plagued career, Michael has racked up 2,374 yards on 441 totes, an amazing 5.38 ypc, and 22 touchdowns (including a 230 yard, three-touchdown game against Arkansas in 2011). If he can stay healthy with this system and his talents, don't be surprised to see him at the top of those Maxwell and Doak Walker Award watch lists at season's end.

Former five-star back, and Oklahoma transfer, Brandon Williams wasted no time in showing his new teammates and coaches what they had in the pipeline. The extreme, intensity, of both his play and his brash, but welcome, cockiness, amplifies the playmaker that he is. All superlatives are warranted with Williams, and like Michael, he is a worker, not content to just ride on his natural abilities. Brandon has explosive, game-breaking speed, next-level ability in the open-field, deceptive power (given his long, slender frame), can block well and possesses Sumlin's requisite hands out of the backfield.

His status is still up in the air, and won't be known for at least a week into fall camp. A&M filed for a hardship waiver to play in the 2012 season as he made the move to be closer to his daughter in Texas. It's never wise to hold your breath over the NCAA's rulings, but if granted the waiver, he's clearly a factor in this backfield that is an enormous boost to the team.

Trey Williams will likely be splitting carries with Christine Michael, Ben Malena, and possibly the aforementioned Brandon Williams. The freshman is a rare player with Barry Sanders-like moves. Freshmen backs can contribute immediately, but usually lag in blocking and taking care of the ball. Still, the Dekaney standout is without question one of the highest caliber players the Aggies have signed in quite some time, and arguably one of the best backs to come out of the lone star state since Adrian Peterson. Clocked in the 4.3's, the only thing that surpasses his speed is his quickness and shiftiness. You rarely see a player that is such a near impossible assignment to tackle in the open field. It is going to be truly exciting to see this young man start his career in maroon and white.

Ben Malena made the most of spring camp, continuing his impressive, efforts that closed out a rough, 7-6 year for the Aggies. With both Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray knocked out in November, Malena was called on as an emergency starter against Texas, and he played a solid game (25 carries, 83 yards, he 3.32 yards per carry) grinding out tough yards against a stingy Texas defensive front. The gaps were being shot by the Longhorn defense throughout that game, yet he was able to make something out of nothing most of the time. The only glaring knock on his overall skill-set is the lack of top end gear, leaving big plays on the field. Still, he displayed a hard-nosed, efficient style that works well between the tackles. If the team needs to grind out some tough yards on the ground, Malena is the man for the job. In addition, he has great hands (in two starts, he managed 10 receptions for 52 yards and one touchdown), and has really polished his blocking, which will make him another great 3rd down option, and a great fit in this offense in general. Again, he's not a game-breaker, but the hard-worker brings complimentary skills to the backfield.

Also on the depth chart are Will Randolph and Tra Carson. Randolph doesn't get a lot of ink, but he quietly put together a solid spring for himself, and he's looking to turn the corner this fall. With a year under his belt, he showed flashes in spring of a being a true football player at this level, not just a guy with speed. He continues to improve on his blocking and ball protection, and with a good fall camp could prove useful for the Aggies this year. At worst, he can definitely be an effective situational weapon for Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury. A former four-star back out of Texarkana, Tra Carson, transferred from Oregon and will redshirt the 2012 season, assuring the Aggies will have at least three (likely more after the 2013 recruiting class is official), big time backs in the fold and on the field in 2013. Like Brandon Williams, he will be a sophomore in 2012.


Overall Running Back Thoughts

Having their limited halfback depth pushed to the brink two seasons in a row, there was anxiety heading into the off-season, but the Aggies emerged from spring camp on much better footing. Christine Michael demonstrated he was far ahead of the injury curve and is primed for a huge senior year in the SEC. Ben Malena continued to solidify himself as an extremely strong and versatile option in the rotation. Coaches and fans are by no means premature in expecting big things from freshman Trey Williams, arguably the best back to come out of the lone star state since Adrian Peterson. The situation can only improve, as the team awaits news from the NCAA regarding Brandon Williams' eligibility status which will come later this month. If granted, A&M will field three blue-chip backs in the rotation, plus Malena, and improving young speedster Will Randolph. All will benefit from a very good A&M offensive line and a system that will afford them a lot of opportunity to make plays.

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