Fall Season Guide 2010 - Running Backs

Fall camp is over and it's game week. Three days until the start of the 2010 season opener against Stephen F. Austin and Aggie Websider is giving you a sneak peek at each position after all the dust has settled from August practices. In today's report, Jeffrey Jennings takes a look at the running backs.

With the assistance of an improved offensive line, passing attack, the direct contribution of Jerrod Johnson's legs, and the two difference makers at running back last season, in Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray, the A&M ground game stepped up it's efforts in a big way, more than doubling the previous seasons output. The Aggies averaged right at 185 rushing yards per game in 2009 (versus 2008's 88.5 ypg) and ranked 30th on the ground (2nd in the Big XII), setting up a balance that led to the 5th ranked offense in the nation. While the offensive output was great, the goal this off-season has been to shore up consistency and efficiency in the red zone. Coming off a successful fall camp, the talented duo is more than capable of holding down their end of the bargain. Let's take a deeper look at the A&M ground game.

Running Back

There is no sense in mincing words with Christine Michael. He is flat out the most talented back A&M has signed in over a decade and the Big XII Offensive Freshman of the Year will be the best back in the conference this season. While he split time with Cyrus Gray as a freshman, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry, netting 844 yards, with 10 touchdowns (including an incredible 97 yard rush against Baylor). He arrived the part physically as a true-freshmen last summer, but he has clearly put in the work this off-season and now checks in with NFL weight at a trim but beastly 217 pounds (without having lost a step according to Coach Sherman), and is squatting over the 650-pound mark. Not only more powerful and durable, he has also matured in the mental side of the game. Michael is no longer running around and risking a loss of yards to make a big play or dancing through the hole, but hitting it quick, hard, and decisive every time.

Many running backs are described as powerful and fast, but while balanced they usually, at best, excel at just one facet. Christine Michael takes both styles to the highest level in one neatly packaged upper echelon back. His shiftiness and balance are on par with the great scat backs, but he also runs with brute power and violence through the hole and has the vision and football smarts to set himself up for whichever he needs at any given moment, be it floating off a would be tackler or boaring through easy prey that presents itself.

Not only does Michael have true blue chip ability but the work ethic to take his talents to the next level. Taking nothing away from Gray, Michael has separated himself and will be the feature back in 2010. One of the empty boxes on his off-season checklist was to establish himself as a sound blocker out of the backfield and it's little surprise the hard nosed, aggressive young man has made big strides with this. His blocking still needs more consistency but he's very capable and when the lights are on and that is going to pay huge dividends for the Aggies the next few seasons, and for his NFL future. While he has improved his efficiency in hitting the hole and protecting the quarterback, the only real knock on Christine is that he still needs to work on his hands out of the backfield.

Cyrus Gray's own confidence and comfort in what he is doing, not to mention Michael's presence, proved a big boost and a kick in the rear last season. The two split the load about dead even (Gray had a 4.8 yard per carry average, a net of 757 and five touchdowns) and complimented each other well. Game-to-game, when one seemed to struggle last season, the other picked up the slack for the most part. Michael has since separated himself a bit, but regardless of who is technically the starter both will see extensive time and as our offensive line and offense in general develops, both will give defenses headaches for years to come. Already an extremely fast (Cyrus was clocked as the 3rd fastest member of the team running a 4.38 in mid July) and shifty runner, with great balance and big play potential, Gray has added a little beef and is much more decisive runner, really hitting his holes hard and has pushed his game into another gear.

Coach Sherman specifically named him as a player who pleasantly surprised him this spring stating, " . . . he's running on instinct and natural ability whereas before he was thinking too much and didn't hit the holes as quickly as he should . . .". Though he'll be used more as the number two in 2010, Gray is very capable of breaking the big one and has much better hands than Michael (in 2009 Cyrus had 28 receptions, 226 yards and two receiving touchdowns) and is a sound blocker out of the backfield, both facets making him a sure thing on passing downs. He'll be utilized accordingly without the Ags' giving up anything in the backfield when the situation dictates his presence. In addition to his halfback duties, Gray will remain as one of A&M's premiere kick returners (most likely alongside Ryan Swope).

In an attempt to bolster safety depth, and find some action for the extremely talented and athletic Bradley Stephens, he was given a hard look on defense this spring, but when it was obvious the move wasn't going to take, the staff didn't hesitate to get him back on offense where he has resumed his role as a talented third option. He has good vision and does a great job between the tackles, finding and breaking through the seam, with good cuts, burst, and big play potential. His blocking isn't noteworthy but he has good hands out of the backfield. With his fumble issues seemingly behind him, Stephens had a great fall camp and gives a quality backfield much needed high quality depth.

Newcomer, Ben Malena is a squatty back with great vision, balance, and is patient in letting his running lanes open. Once he sees what he wants, he makes his cut and he really shoots the gap well. Like most good backs, he is elusive and seldom allows defenders a clean shot at him. He has adequate speed and will not run away from defenders, but he is a great option in short yardage and goal-line situations, as he has great footwork and a knack for getting his pads low in traffic and gaining positive yards on every carry (as he proved countless times in fall camp while running with the first team). Though not as dynamic as Cyrus Gray or Christine Michael he was one of the most impressive newcomers in fall camp and gives A&M sound depth at the position. While not likely to break off long runs, he is a "plugger" who can get the tough yard when needed, and has enough speed and moves to gain some 10-15 yard bursts as well. Malena also has great hands out of the backfield and is a willing and able blocker, when called on to hang back against the pass rush.

At 6' 2" 210, Mister Jones is put together amazingly well for such a young running back, and is very powerful, but proved in fall camp that he has a long ways to go in his development and will likely redshirt. When he gets there, Jones is back capable of hitting the hole hard, running through arm tackles, and provides a very dependable option in short yardage situations. Though not a shifty back he has great in line speed for his size. Jones is a decent blocker as of now, but again, while the young man has some real potential as a bruising back, he's got a lot to clean up in his game before he gets to that point.


Though the A&M offensive attack doesn't utilize the fullback spot often, it is a piece of the puzzle and bears mentioning. In addition to walk-on Anthony Vela, the tight ends were also getting into the act this off-season much like Jamie McCoy at H-Back (hybrid TE/FB) last year. I imagine given the lack of a true fullback, A&M will fill the role with the aforementioned tight ends as H-Backs when needed.

Running Back Overall

All of the A&M skill positions are loaded and it's no different at halfback. The Aggies have two running backs who could start anywhere in the conference (and just about any program in the country for that matter), another back that can fill their role without giving up too much ground, and a well-rounded newcomer that finishes the pack as a sure thing on short to intermediate yardage plays. The goal of the A&M offense this year isn't to rack up the gaudy yards they put up last year, but to put points on the board and this stable is more than talented, and deep, enough carry their weight.

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