The past few years have not exactly been kind to the Rutgers running game. There are a myriad of causes - poor line play (run blocking fell off in 2007 before Anthony Davis went into the lineup, and in 2008 it was a mess until late in the season), a spread offense eschewing traditional I-formation principles, injuries, a muddled depth chart, and just plain inconsistency. In most respects, 2011 offered more of the same from that laundry list of faults. Jawan Jamison had a handful of strong games including victories over Cincinnati and Iowa State, but was largely held back by awful line play. Savon Huggins showed flashes in short yardage plays, but had a few critical fumbles at inopportune times, similarly struggled to find holes, and went down late in the season with an injury.
There are some resurgent signs of life there, but it's pretty much the same story as it has been the past few years. There's some talent present, but it really doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot if the run blocking does not improve significantly. It definitely will help to be in year two of the transition back to a pro-style offense. Rutgers was thin at fullback and tight end last season, and it showed. Can a brother please, for once, pick up a blitzing defender? The offensive line was capable in pass protection, but a nasty streak at the line of scrimmage - frankly, the OL's former trademark "push" of the defensive line past the line of scrimmage was still notably absent. Merely by committing to run the ball and ball control last season, Rutgers started down the path to rejuvenation here. Now they are charged with sticking with that plan, and seeing it through to fruition.
It won't please many fans to see the dreaded running back-by-committee approach return again. Returning starter Jawan Jamison is likely to find plenty of reps if only for stylistic reasons. He's a slasher, and whether it's Ray Rice or Kordell Young, that is the ideal type of runner for Kyle Flood's trademark zone-blocking attack. At his best (e.g. Cincinnati), Jamison provided a reasonable facsimile of Rice in breaking tackles and seemingly getting stronger with more carries. When the holes weren't there though, when he was getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage with no hope of escape, he looked as futile as any recent Rutgers runner. Those faults were not necessarily his fault (who outside of New Jersey remembers that Rice ran behind an elite OL that sent multiple players to the NFL), but as of this point, he has not displayed the elite second gear necessary to transcend beyond being a mere system back. Given that the OL play cannot be accounted for, at minimum what can be expected from Jawan this season is to show measured improvement in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield.
That latter attribute was what the Scarlet faithful wanted from Savon Huggins last year. A traditional straight-ahead back with a top combination of power and speed, Huggins had garnered offers from power programs across the country, spurning them all to stay home at Rutgers. He had arguably generated more attention than any Rutgers recruit since the afore-mentioned Anthony Davis (arguably surpassing Tom Savage in that respect), only to be faced with a rude awakening to the college game as a true freshman. Now, he's almost overlooked, with Darius Hamilton now adored as the supreme center of attention. Even the most talented back cannot run through holes that do not exist. Regardless, Huggins's power should find a significant role in the offense in any scenario, if not a starting job. Until proven otherwise, he is the best candidate to wear and grind defenses down over the course of the game, with the added off chance of a long run to daylight always lurking in the background.
Rutgers has much more of a clear delineation this year than in seasons past in recent memory. That's good in the sense that it's probably ideal to focus on giving one or two players the majority of the reps, instead of starving everybody in a rotation that leads to nothing but group mediocrity. Still, the depth is somewhat young and inexperienced behind the duo that are likely to see the majority of playing time this season. Incoming freshman Desmon Peoples offers a spark plug (think Jamison with a little less size, but more power and game-breaking ability), that seems like an ideal fit for one or two touches a game on certain downs (he sounds like just what the doctor ordered on a third and long draw for instance.) Redshirt freshman walk-on Paul James should be one of the more-interesting stories of camp, drawing a lot of attention last season for seemingly coming on out of nowhere to be a standout of fall camp to outshine some scholarship players.
It's hard to say whether it reflects poorly or not on this unit that the clear breakout player in 2011 was fullback Michael Burton. In one sense, he received repetitions by default. Joe Martinek was a fine runner and receiver (and indeed, has a puncher's chance of making the New York Giants this season as a halfback), but was miscast as a traditional fullback. The difference was evident as soon as Burton forced his way into the lineup. That's not to imply that Burton stood out merely in virtue of actually being a true fullback (although that definitely played a role to some extent.) He was genuinely good, and showed a lot of potential! Burton not only had soft hands out of the backfield, but was surprisingly good in a handful of limited carries on the ground. No one ever expects the fullback between the tackles! Paul Canevari offers the potential to grow into a similar player in time, with the luxury (or drawback, depending on how you look at it) of not being thrown into the fire from day one. There's an X-factor here too in converted linebacker Sam Bergen. He was a solid prospect, but after multiple knee injuries, Bergen might be better suited to this side of the ball, with the added bonus of shoring up depth at a spot that sorely needs it due to roster needs.
The risks and causes for alarm are clear as day here to everyone, so there's no use belaboring the point. Rutgers does not have any upperclassmen backs on its roster currently, and will not have a senior until 2014. By any measure, this group has to be considered a year away. There's some cause for optimism, sure - there is a non-zero possibility that Savon Huggins could morph into Eric Dickerson overnight, however minuscule. They're by no means devoid of talent - in fact, it would be difficult to find any group of underachievers with more of a chip on their shoulders by now. Still, in most scenarios, the best Rutgers can hope for is steady improvement, growth, consistency, and, most importantly of all, competency.
Rutgers doesn't necessarily need the next Ray Rice, not yet anyway. If Jamison and Huggins can build on 2011; if they can average north of 4 yards a carry, win first downs, convert third downs, and hang on to the football - all crucial elements to moving the chains and keeping drives alive, then 2012 is far more likely to be a success offensively. If the offense has ANY kind of legitimate running game, then defenses can no longer key in on the pass, play action becomes a realistic weapon again, and we are back in business as a real-life, functioning offense. After the past few seasons, that sure would be nice for a change.