2001 VU Football Preview- Running Backs


There are no two ways about it. The VU rushing attack stunk it up in 2000, and was a primary factor behind the team's inability to build on the momentum gained in 1999. The offensive line had great difficulty blowing defenders off the line of scrimmage. The running backs did not always have the vision or ability to hit the holes that were created. Probably most troubling, was once again the inability to convert the tough yard when we needed it. The VU rushing attack was never taken seriously by opposing defensive coordinators, which took its toll on the passing game and the offense in general. There will be some turnover on both the line and at running back this season. Will it solve the problem?

Look Back to 2000

  • 12th ranked Rushing Offense in the SEC (96 ypg)
  • 12th ranked in SEC yards per carry (3.1)
  • Fewest rushing touchdowns in the SEC (8)
  • Longest rushing play for a touchdown was 11 yards
  • Only 4 running plays of more than 20 yards the entire season (2 by Perkins, 2 by McGrath)
  • No RB's gained over 100 yards in a game
  • Largest amount of yards gained by any RB in a game (73 - Perkins vs. South Carolina)
  • VU RB's tied for the least number of fumbles lost in the SEC (4)
There are really only a couple of positives to be taken away from the 2000 rushing offense. First, they did not turn the ball over often. The RB's all generally did a good job holding onto the ball. Secondly, was the emergence of true freshman Ray Perkins, a player many considered an afterthought recruit initially. Perkins, though not up to SEC standards in stature, showed an explosiveness at the position that had yet to be seen during Coach Woody Widehoefer's tenure. Perkins showed an exceptional ability to turn the corner and beat defenders. To go along with his explosiveness, he showed a remarkable toughness for his size as well. He also proved that he can catch the ball and do something with it, as he did on a 30 yard catch and run (mostly run) TD against Miami.

Other than these, there was nothing positive to take away from last season. The running game struggled in almost every situation. Once again the OL and RB's had trouble converting in short yardage situations. They struggled to establish the run as a somewhat equal threat to the passing game during SEC play. The only times the running game seemed to come to life was against non-conference competition (season high 174 yards versus Duke), and when we began spreading the offense out at Georgia. The latter could be explained away as being a complete surprise to the UGA staff.

Running backs

2Rodney Williams5-11208R-Sr.Birmingham, AL
4Lew Thomas6-0212Sr.Atlanta, GA
8Ray Perkins5-10191So.Ft. Lauderdale, FL
9Norval McKenzie5-11200R-Fr.Powder Springs, GA
29Chris Mitacek5-11208Jr.Cudahy, WI
33Matt Tant5-11208Fr.Pegram, TN
34Mike Adam6-3235Jr.Hales Corner, WI
48Juan Rojas*6-0215Jr.Econonistas, Mexico
* walk-on

The Breakdown

  • 7 scholarship players
  • 4 upperclassmen
  • 3 underclassmen
  • 5 have seen game action at this position
  • Returning players accounted for 579 yards and 2 TD's in 2000
  • 3 of the 7 scholarship players are listed at 208 pounds

Production-wise, the returning players barely measure up to the yardage of Jared McGrath's senior season, and they have fewer than half as many touchdowns as McGrath scored. At first glance, that might be discouraging. It should not be. The returning talent boasts more athleticism and speed, as well as more potential.

Ray Perkins is the one of the hottest names among Vanderbilt fans these days. He electrified fans during his first game as a true freshman with his exceptional speed, and he showed flashes of being a future star. This led to many fans wondering why Perkins saw no more than part time duty behind McGrath. The fans certainly had their reasons to wonder. Among the regular ball carriers, Perkins carried the highest yards per carry average (4.9) by a wide margin of almost one yard. At the same time he was proving to be a reliable receiver out of the backfield. On the other hand, Perkins was just a true freshman, who was still learning the offensive and blocking schemes. Perkins struggled in some pass protection situations missing assignments or simply missing blocks. Perkins was also well below the average size of most featured RB's in the modern day SEC. Coaches in today's SEC like to see RB's tilting the scales at 215 to 220 pounds. Perkins was slight, weighing in at around 5-10 180 pounds. He has beefed up at least 10 pounds by now, which should allow him to carry a heavier load this year as well as be more effective protecting the QB. Barring injury or an unforeseen surge from below on the depth chart, Perkins looks to be the starting RB on August 30th.

In all likelihood, the battle to see who will back up Perkins will be much more interesting. Rodney Williams has been an on again, off again commodity since he arrived at VU. He's had superb springs and poor falls. He's had poor springs and superb falls. At times he looks explosive and aggressive with the ball, while at other times he seems to run tentatively with only an average step. His career has truly been a paradox. It leaves us all wondering whether the Freshman All-SEC Rodney will show up, or if we will have a repeat of the 2.9 yards per carry Rodney. That is a question that will have to be answered in the fall, but as things stand now, Williams is coming off an impressive spring. He seemed to have his step back. He hit the holes with sureness. When Rodney runs for the holes without a lot of extraneous moves he is much more effective than when he "dances" through the gap others. Rodney appeared to have returned to this more slashing style in the spring. Williams is a quite dependable back when it comes to the passing game. He has good hands, and he is the best returning blocker in the backfield. In addition to these strengths, he brings several valuable intangibles to the table. Williams is a good guy to have around the team. Rodney will have a shot at earning the starting nod, but he will need an excellent fall to do so.

Beyond Williams and Perkins things get pretty uncertain. Senior Lew Thomas has always appeared to have all of the skill and athleticism needed to shine at RB. These appearances have not translated to serious game action, or even maintaining the same position (he spent a stint at WR). Thomas has the best moves of any returning back. He can juke and move his way out of bad situations as well as anyone. His temporary move to WR testify to his hands. The knocks on Thomas have been his work ethic and holding onto the ball. Thomas has the ability to move up in the rotation if he works hard.

Norval McKenzie and Matt Tant round out the most likely candidates for RB. McKenzie had a solid redshirt year. He performed well in some of the fall scrimmages, and performed well on the scout team. Whether or not he has enough speed to be a featured RB in the SEC remains to be seen. Tant, one of the more heralded VU recruits at the position in some time, is a very physical runner and nice overall athlete. A weightroom junkie, he will be physically read the moment he puts on the uniform. He is a no nonsense runner, who is most effective running north and south. The main question is whether he will play RB and/or part time FB in our scheme.

The offensive adjustments for the upcoming season have fueled a lot of speculation for the running game. Reports surface that we might be spreading the field more, which would make the use of a single back most likely. You also hear that we might move a couple of guys to FB and run more plays out the traditional I formation. I suspect we will see the former scenario more often than the latter. Though this will mean the offense will rely mostly on a single back set, there will be times a FB, or variation thereof, will be implemented. Of the scholarship players, only Chris Mitacek is listed as a FB. Mitacek is not what most would call a prototypical FB. He is not noticeably larger or stronger than those we have listed at RB. He has not proven to be a devastating blocker, though he is competent. When Mitacek sees significant playing time, as he did versus Kentucky last year, he is more of a second RB. He is there to compliment the other. In some ways Mitacek is like McGrath. He does not have the breakaway speed needed for a true threat at RB, and he has a no frills running style. He is more likely to try and run through defenders than around them. He is different in that his is a bit bigger, and he is an excellent route runner and pass catcher. He may be called a FB, but he has yet to truly function as one.

When a traditional, smash mouth FB is needed, Mike Adam might be our man. In the past couple of seasons he has seen limited duty in this capacity, mostly in goal line situations. Due to this I have listed him with this group. He could be called on less for this type of duty in 2001, because he is expected to be a significant contributor to the LB corps. If his role is reduced in the FB capacity, we could see Zeke Brandon move over and fill this spot, though any mentions of this have been only rumor to this point. There may also be opportunities for walk-ons Juan Rojas and Dan Murphy (listed as a walk-on TE) to contribute to this role.

The biggest X-factor in the utilization of the FB is Matt Tant. If he lives up to his considerable billing and press clippings, the staff may be forced to find a way to get him onto the field. That may be a difficult task if Perkins continues the development he began last fall. His progression will likely be the measure by which we see the usage of a FB. If he is put on the field in a FB role, it will likely be more of a complimentary back role, rather than a true FB.


The athletic ability of this group is at least as good as last year's, if not better. There is a nice blend of experience and youth. They are lacking a proven, physical runner, and unless one is found in McKenzie or Tant. Perkins still appears to be a few pounds away from being a "workhorse" or our best option in short yardages. Also, contrary to most of our SEC counterparts there is not someone on the roster who is an established or predicted SEC superstar, who has the complete package. Each of our options have at least one distinct weakness. Perkins will likely carry most of the load, but his weaknesses will have to be made up for by committee. How Perkins progresses and this second group masks his weaknesses will probably decide the effectiveness of this position.

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