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2008 Season Preview: Running Backs

Projected depth chart:

Tailback: Kordell Young (RS-SO 5'9, 185 lbs), Mason Robinson (SO 5'10, 190 lbs), Jourdan Brooks (RS-FR 6'1, 245 lbs), Joe Martinek (RS-FR 6'0, 215 lbs)
Fullback: Jack Corcoran (JR 6'1, 230 lbs), Andres Morales (RS-SO 6'2, 250 lbs)

I've already written a lot about Ray Rice and Brian Leonard, and will likely write more in the future, so I'll try to be brief here. Both players benefitted from some excellent line play at Rutgers, and many are quick to draw a causal connection between their play and Rutgers's relative success over the past three seasons. Frankly, they deserve all of the accolades they've received. Both players were picked in the second round of the NFL draft, both are quality individuals off of the field, and both will be remembered in Rutgers lore forever. You can make a case that they, along with Paul Robeson, are synonymous with Rutgers football.

It's asking quite a lot of any back to fill Rice's considerable shoes, especially behind a young and inexperienced offensive line. Consider that Rutgers has ranked 42nd, 15th, and 26th in rushing the past three seasons. The team's calling card has been physical, smash-mouth football, and it's no coincidence that they struggled last year when they could not dominate both lines of scrimmage like they did in 2006.

Rice was compactly built, but looks can be deceiving. In that small package was the toughest, most-physical player we had seen in a long time. His ability to break tackles, and even carry defenders on his back as he moved the chains, that's what we'll miss most of all. Neither Young nor Robinson can be expected to match Rice's power between the tackles. They'll also need time, as Rice did, to become more proficient in pass-protection and receiving. The factor that they do bring to the offense, that Rice necessarily did not, is more burst and explosion. Rice was an absolute terror for the first ten yards, but he lacked the closing speed of say, Steve Slaton, to be able to really take it to the house if he got free in space.

 

And Leonard slayed eleven Orangemen that day, all by his lonesome.

 

I'm mostly lumping Young and Robinson together here, and it's for good reason. They're both similar players. Speedy, slashing, multiple-cut tailbacks that should be productive in Rutgers's zone blocking scheme if the linemen are up to the task. Young started last season as a special teams contributor and Rice's primary backup, before succumbing to a knee injury vs. Norfolk State. At which point, true freshman Mason Robinson stepped in. Unfortunately, due to Schiano's Lloyd Carr-esque devotion to Rice and conservative gameplans, neither really received the garbage time reps you would have liked to see during the past two seasons, and Rice suffered as a result due to overuse.

 

Welcome back

 

Young's role is a question mark coming off of knee surgery, but early results from fall practice have been positive. I listed him before Robinson due to seniority, but both will likely see significant game action this fall, unless either manages to wrest away the job. Think Andre Dixon and Donald Brown for last year's UConn team.

The task of replacing Rice's power will primarily fall on the shoulders of Jourdan Brooks. Brooks impressed on the scout team last fall, and reportedly can run in the mid 4.4s range, which is quite impressive for a man of his size. If that's true, why isn't he in the mix to see more carries? I'd imagine stamina is an issue, but more alarming (especially considering that this was rarely a concern with Rice), was a propensity during spring practice to cough up the football. I can think of no quicker way into Schiano's (or any coaches') doghouse than committing costly turnovers. Also in the mix is Joe Martinek, who has decent timed measurables, and put up gaudy stats in high school against less than stellar competition. There are only four scholarship tailbacks on the roster, so the team could be in trouble if any of them are injured.

The primary camp battle at fullback will be between Jack Corcoran and Andres Morales, and early indications are that Corcoran has once again pulled ahead. Obviously, any white fullback at Rutgers that's touted as a pass catching threat will inevitably draw comparisons to Brian Leonard. I think a major factor in his current status as a starter is that Schiano and OC John McNulty would like to bring back that safety valve for Teel factor into our offense. It's a lot harder to double cover receivers downfield if the fullback might catch a few balls.

The drawback of this, as we sadly learned in 2007, was that Corcoran had a ways to go as a blocker. The running game improved considerably when Corcoran was replaced in the starting lineup by Jean Beljour, and later, Andres Morales (Anthony Davis also replaced Kevin Haslam at RG). Morales, a converted LB, is much more of a traditional, mauling FB, akin to Cedric "Bad Newz" Brown and Ishmael Medley in recent memory. With Edmond Laryea taking snaps at LB this fall, there isn't another player on the roster that primarily lines up at fullback. However, Greg Schiano has indicated that backup TE Shamar Graves will see some snaps at fullback as more of a H-Back receiving threat out of the backfield. Depth isn't a huge concern though. Rutgers has used a lot of multiple-WR and two-TE sets the past few seasons, but the role of the FB was especially limited in 2007 due to Leonard's graduation. It might be worked back in a little in 2008, but you can surely expect McNulty to call a lot of plays that spread out and test opposing secondaries.

Maybe it's heretical to say this, but Ray Rice will not be impossible to replace. With a strong running game, they won't necessarily need to provide every yard of his All-American production. They don't need to be great; just good enough. Make no mistake though: as a defensive-oriented coach, Greg Schiano would like nothing more than to run over teams and control a game's time of possession.

I believe that a good running game is largely a function of quality offensive line play. Any player can run for 4 yards per carry, and at worst, that label can describe the duo of Young and Robinson. To have a great running game though, you need a proven star back. Rice may have ran for the same 4 ypc, but they were all critical yards. He was reliable in short yardage situations, and that's the quality we may struggle to replace the most this year as the OL may take a while to develop chemistry and experience. This is definitely a question mark heading into the season, with the hope that it could become a strength going into 2009, when Rutgers will be looking to replace key components of its passing attack. Expect to see Teel and the offense leaning on a lot of intermediate crossing routes and slants as a de-facto running game if they're having trouble moving the rock.