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2009 Season Preview: Running Backs

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Projected 2009 depth chart

RB: Joe Martinek (RS-SO 6'0, 215 lbs), Jourdan Brooks (RS-SO 6'1, 230 lbs), Kordell Young (RS-JR 5'9, 190 lbs), De'Antwan Williams (FR 5'8, 195 lbs)
FB: Jack Corcoran (SR 6'1, 230 lbs), Andres Morales (RS-JR 6'2, 250 lbs)

During his three years on campus, before departing for the NFL, Ray Rice singlehandedly rewrote the Rutgers University record book. The team road him to a dream, 11-win 2006 season. Every media pundit had Rice on their Heisman shortlist, his publicity helped put the Rutgers football program on the map, and the Scarlet Knight offense sputtered in the first half last season while they were still adjusting to life without the departed Rice. Case closed on Rice being an irreplaceable team cornerstone, right?

My contention is that the common sense explanation here doesn't quite tell the full picture here. Last year, teams weren't compensating for Rice's departure by playing by doubling all receivers downfield (although, they frequently were shadowing Kenny Britt). Mike Teel was playing so badly that opponents had no qualms about stacking eight or nine defenders in the box.

On a similar note, it's great to have an elite back, but productive RBs are, by and large, relatively easy to find. Breaking in a new one requires some trial and error when it comes to pass protection, or the screen game, but the act of running itself comes naturally (it's no coincidence that RBs typically have lowest Wonderlic scores at the NFL Combine). It was fair to expect some inconsistency in replacing Rice, but the running game wasn't going to do fall off a cliff, and it didn't. Rushing success is just as much a function of having a strong offensive line up front; quality line play is the prerequisite for accomplishing anything on offense.

Sophomore Joe Martinek enters fall camp at the top of the tailback depth chart. Martinek, after impressing on the scout team during his redshirt season in 2007, first saw significant carries against Navy last season while Kordell Young and Mason Robinson were out injured. Martinek looked impressive, but then proceeded to sit on the bench for another month before seeing his workload steadily increase in December.

From last year's four man rotation, it's Martinek that has everyone buzzing. He had the highest yards per carry average of the team's top four runners last year. Martinek was seemingly the only one of the four that possessed both power and short-area acceleration.

"He has a running style like mine a lot," Leonard said. "He's kind of a downhill runner, a powerful runner. I've been talking to him about training. He's been a good player; hes a good guy, too."

That's a deadly combination; along with his vision, and quick cutting ability, it's one that brought back fond memories of Ray Rice. No, Martinek isn't quite Rice. Rice's small stature actually worked to his advantage, making him harder to tackle, and giving him a low center of gravity. Martinek has a more uptight running style than Rice, does need to use the next three seasons to continue his upward development.

There's a definite reason to get excited about Martinek. Why were there constant calls last year for him to see more time? Because whenever Joe touched the ball, things happened. That's undeniable, and precisely why he deserves to enter camp as the starter. It was a terrific freshman campaign. That doesn't mean that he will be handed the job, nor is he expecting a coronation.

"Whatever the coaches ask me to do, I’m going to do the best I can and try to help the team in any way possible," he said. "I always prepare like I am a starter every year, so I’m ready for anything."

I'm a believer in Martinek. Let me play the devil's advocate for a moment though. No, he wasn't held down by prejudice or bias (cf: conspiracy theories peddled by the same creepy racists that fetishized Leonard, and now venerate Martinek as a symbol of adulation. Leave our players alone you sick bastards.) Joe only saw 76 carries last year; ideally, you'd want to see a larger sample size before declaring anyone a future star. The other reason for caution, or at minimum, somewhat guarded optimism, is recognizing that Martinek did see strategic use last season.

No, Brooks, Young, and Robinson didn't live up to expectations. They were all young players, with unpredictable career trajectories, but so was Martinek. However, all were surely the victims of subpar run blocking. Rutgers didn't just lose Ray Rice following 2007; the Knights also lost several stellar linemen. The once-vaunted rushing attack fell from 4.78 to 3.93 ypc, and surely the entire drop off can be attributed solely to losing Rice. In the first half of last season, Rutgers kept shuffling its OL, searching for the right chemistry, and throwing green, inexperienced underclassmen right into the fire.

The line clicking was one of several factors that keyed the team's midseason turnaround last season, and Martinek was direct beneficiary. If you don't agree, look at the statistics. Buried in the passing game's awakening at Pittsburgh was that Kordell Young had his best game of the season up to that point against the Panthers, and followed it up with an even stronger performance against Syracuse the next week. That was the same game that Martinek broke a 45-yarder, but he only had two carries. Young is the one who took the pounding, shoulder the load for thirty carries. (Which, in retrospect, may not be his ideal role in the offense.) Both played well against USF and Army, and Brooks is the one who played best against Louisville (losing a dread in the process).

Martinek's game against NC State puts him over the top. Nevertheless, don't forget that Brooks toted the rock in the first half. He did not put up an impressive stat line. However, a big back like that charging into defenders has a cumulative effect. It pays dividends down the road, softening the defense up for a change of pace like Martinek to run wild. Martinek's skill set may be the best fit for a green OL, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's the best fit as an every down back, or the guy to run behind a stellar unit. Reports indicated that Martinek surged ahead of Brooks in spring practice, but they all have to get through August, unscathed, before the games start to count.

As a defensive-minded coach, I think that Greg Schiano would, if at all possible, run the ball on every single down. That's what they all want to do. For ball control to be effective, you need a runner that can break tackles and move the chains. Of the other contenders for the job, Jourdan Brooks fits the bill muchmoreso than Kordell Young does, although I suspect that all three will see their share of carries, dependent on many disparate factors.

I don't know whether the culprit was Schiano or the former offensive coordinator John McNulty, but Rutgers hasn't been inclined at all to use an even distribution of carries in a running back platoon in recent years. Someone, at least, likes to ride the hot hand; whether it was Rice, or each flavor of the week last year. After Ray Rice established himself as a star in 2006, Brian Leonard was arguably underutilized. The next season, Rice was practically forced into the NFL by overuse; the coaching staff did not insert younger backups Kordell Young and Mason Robinson into even the early stages of blowouts (there are similar issues with playing backup QBs). For the sake of developing underclassmen at the position, my preference would be to try and maintain a level of momentum by earmarking a series or two each week to both give the backups steady work, and give the starter adequate rest. Inconsistent play makes me wary; if a starter does go down, don't you want the backup to have seen more live action?

It's my belief that Brooks was hurt far more than the other backs on the roster by the team's struggles with run blocking last year. Young and Robinson may not break many tackles, but when they do, they have the jets to create a big gain. Brooks can run a 40 yard dash with anyone, but don't let the dreads fool you: he's not Steven Jackson. Meaning that, while he's a big back, he doesn't quite always consistently hit the whole fast enough, or with enough intensity. Jourdan physically dominated a Navy team where he was arguably bigger than any player on their defense, but struggled when his blockers couldn't open up holes for him, not even making it to the line of scrimmage at times. He still broke plenty of tackles, but two or three won't cut it when five or six are in your face. if Martinek could get to the line of scrimmage even a half second faster, that's the edge he needs to make the run into a positive play, and gain yardage.

Brooks didn't cut like Martinek last year, he didn't find holes like Martinek, and because of that lack of short-area burst, it was an all-too-frequent site last year to see Brooks tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a loss. Now, give Jordan more time with strength coach Jay Butler, give the line another year with Kyle Flood, and you can imagine the possibilities.

That is the tantalizing possibility that Jourdan Brooks offers, of a 6'1, 245 lb back who can take it to the house. He will continue to get chances, and deserves to receive them. As the clip illustrates, Brooks, like Brian Leonard, actually gains speed when given enough time to get his legs moving. After going through rough patches during the season, Brooks can still hold his head up high, and look back at the Louisville game as a sign portending more success yet to come. He missed some time later in the spring, but all indications are that Brooks is set to contribute next month.

It was Kordell Young, though, that entered last season perched atop the team's crowded running back depth chart as Ray Rice's immediate successor. It's easy to forget that he led the team in carries last season, 42 ahead of Brooks. Recovering from a knee injury that confined him to a redshirt in 2007, Young earned a starting job in fall camp. His performance against Fresno State wasn't awful considering the circumstances, but he quickly fell out of the conversion by sitting out for the next month. When Young finally returned in October, he struggled for two games, broke out against Pittsburgh, and put together a solid four-game stretch before succumbing once again to a knee injury.

Which, unfortunately, are the most pressing concern with Young at the moment. He suffered a new, separate injury in the opener against Fresno, one that hampered him for the entire season. Make no mistake; despite the deserved enthusiasm for Martinek, a healthy Young adds his own special dimension to the offense, of a runner capable of generating big plays whenever the ball is in his hands. He has quick feet made for cutting into holes generated by a zone blocking scheme. Now, Young doesn't break many tackles, which was quite evident in last year's opener, where he struggled to punch in a routine short yardage play. That's the fault of the coaching staff; it's their job to put players into situations where they will succeed, and can best utilize their talents.

Young is supposedly healthy now after missing more time during the spring, although the stereotype with knee issues is that they have a tendency to keep flaring up over time. It’s a big concern for the time being. If he is on the field, however, Kordell Young is likely to see significant touches this fall. (edit: there's talk about him being a good fit for a third down role. I agree, but I think the staff likes him for a bigger role if possible.)

However, if Young falters again, incoming freshman De'Antwan "I am contractually obligated to add 'Rocket' here" Williams is likely to move up the depth chart.

"I highly doubt I will get red-shirted," said Williams, who could also see time as a kickoff returner. "Even if I have to split time, that won’t be the worst thing."

Williams, a top recruit out of Northern Virginia, put in a solid performance earlier in the summer at the NJ/NE All-Star Game. Williams, with his 5'8, 195 lb frame, estimated 4.4ish speed, and touted power, seems like the closest of all of these runners to Rice on paper. I did note one key difference at the NJ/NE game though; Williams has power, but seems to be more of a horizontal runner. Rice was always more of a north and south, keep-the-chains-moving type. There's some Ray in him, but Rocket's best comparison may be more along the lines of a Maurice Jones-Drew. He'll have to spar with walk-on Tyrone Putman, who saw work in the spring before succumbing to injury. Mason Robinson could also be in the mix here, but I think he'll spend most of his time at WR this fall, and will touch on M-Rob when I get to that positional group.

It's a little tiring revisiting the mid-season 2008 turnaround theme, isn't it? It may fit no player more than projected starting fullback Jack Corcoran though. He initially arrived on campus billed as a poor man's Brian Leonard. Corcoran earned a starting job in 2007, but his run blocking was soon publicly questioned by Greg Schiano.

One point of Schiano's focus seemed to be on the lack of solid blocking at the fullback position. Jack Corcoran, a junior from Atlantic City, seemed to miss two blocks during the course of the game on Saturday. However, Schiano wasn't ready to say that a change needs to be made.

"I just think we need to say on top of it," Schiano said. "Jack has done a good job the first couple ball games. Maybe (it's) just a technique thing. We need to get it fixed."

Blocking specialist Andres Morales soon took over. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised that Corcoran regained his starting job last fall, and remained in the lineup in the first half last season. He was clearly a talented receiving option out of the backfield; but Mike Teel rarely looked to Jack with the likes of Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood downfield. The running game continued to sputter.

Yet, in spite of the fact that Rutgers enacted several lineup changes to spur catching fire in October, Corcoran was one of several skill position players on offense to maintain his job, and managed to validate the coaching staff's faith by stepping up his level of play. The improvement was twofold: Corcoran was always seemingly capable of being a dependable third or fourth option in the passing game. Barring the Pizza Bowl against NC State, he still did not play that significant of a role in the passing game, but did see a few more looks.

But what a sight to behold that bowl game was (6 receptions for 62 yards). With Rutgers dealing with inexperience at the WR position this fall, the bowl could portend greater things to come, with Corcoran and TE Shamar Graves playing a larger role in the passing game as security blankets. Jack may have just lacked a chance to catch passes, but he truly did struggle with run blocking. As someone that called for his benching last year, I have to begrudgingly admit that his improvement in that area was one of several catalysts for the team's improved success running the ball in the second half.

In my defense, I still don't understand why a pass-catching specialist fullback is starting if Mike Teel never planned on checking down to him. If Rutgers was going to use its FBs exclusively for blocking, it would have made more sense to play backup Andres "Hoagie" Morales. I mean, I wasn't the only one calling for Morales.

6. It’s time to try Andres Morales at fullback.

Sure, it seems like a minor thing. But Rutgers isn’t getting the blocking it needs from starter Jack Corcoran. Why else would Schiano have kept two tight ends — Kevin Brock and Shamar Graves — in the backfield to block already? Why else would he have called on defensive tackle — yes, defensive tackle — Blair Bines for a play at fullback against North Carolina?

Morales is so entrenched in Schiano’s doghouse it will take the jaws of life to get him out. But the 250-pounder has shown he can block.

Andres is a stocky 250 lbs, seemingly built for flattening would-be tacklers. His role was limited last season after taking over in 2007, and the team struggled for it. With Corcoran's blocking improved, and the offense actually having a need for receptions at the position, it makes sense now for Morales to take a back seat this year. However, he'll still need to contribute on short yardage and goal line sets.

It would be a profound surprise if incoming freshman fullback Robert Joseph didn't redshirt during this upcoming season. If injuries lead to depth issues, RU can always play more multi-WR and TE sets, or move a defender like Eric LeGrand or Edmond Laryea over.

Sure, there's still some level of uncertainty at this position, but no more than at most situations across the country. All of last year's main contributors return, and some of them even looked good in the process. This group is buttressed by a top incoming freshman, and will run behind a line that, by all accounts, took a major step forward in the spring. They'll have less running room than what was available last year, with an inexperienced passing game still looking for its footing; but that area looks significantly ahead of where Rutgers was at entering the 2006 season. It's a reasonably good group all around. I expect Rutgers to get back to physical, ball-control, kill the clock football this year (coupled with a stout, blitz-happy defense). They'll try to run the ball down opponents' throats, and most of the time will be fairly successful in doing so. Add in a far too easy schedule to the equation, and with this unit's help, RU will resemble the 2006 squad in more ways than one.