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Rutgers football 2011 season preview: running backs

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Savon Huggins is the great shining hope of Rutgers football. You don't need to audit a mythology course to script out how this one is supposed to go. Raymell Rice was the great hero of legend, with fresh paeans to his greatness still arising to this day. Alas, he eventually shook off his mortal coil and ascended to the realm of the gods, leaving nary an anointed successor in place. In Rice's absence, Rutgers football roughly stood in place, but eventually a great sickness came over the land. From corner to corner, the sky reddened (not the good kind), the livestock grew sick with pestilence, the crops withered. All was not right in Piscataway. The masses cried out in discontent for release, for a champion to restore balance, and order, and sanity.

For Rutgers football, every waking moment of the trying 2010 season was like living through a nightmare that you could not wake up from; the Apocalypse meets Hurricane Katrina multiplied by Bon Jovi, carry the Joe Paterno stomping on a human face forever. With the vultures circling, eager in their hubris to declare the Scarlet Knights perpetually hopeless, one remarkable young man from Jackson Township and St. Peter's Prep wouldn't have any of it. So many past New Jerseyans have unfortunately succumbed to the lure of Notre Dame. Butch Davis saw him as the final linchpin for turning North Carolina from a stodgy basketball school into a SEC-style football colossus. Savon Huggins could have played anywhere. He had the foresight and the vision to see through it all. His trust and belief in Rutgers was the first step towards edging the program back off the precipice.

Believe it or not, six years ago Ray Rice was just a moderately heralded freshman. Rutgers returned a formidable back combo in Brian Leonard and Justise Hairston, even if the latter had fallen out of favor due to his fumbling woes. For a while, there was a very real competition in preseason camp between Rice and Dmitri Linton for carries, squashed only when the latter was felled by injury. If Greg Schiano was trying to manage expectations for his prized freshman, a week of positive media reports exploded into a crescendo of praise following Huggins's breakout, masterful performance in a Saturday scrimmage. Savon delivered a message, which should by evident loud and clear to all observers: this is his team now. Either jump on the bandwagon now, or get the hell out of the way, because this train isn't stopping any time soon if he has anything to say about it.

Backing up Huggins will likely be last year's prized true freshman in Jeremy Deering. In all honesty, Deering is a natural receiver, but he's just so talented that not moving him to the backfield would have been criminal given the team's plethora of depth at wideout. You can ask Syracuse; Deering excelled as a wildcat quarterback last year. He couldn't break as many tackles as Mohamed Sanu, or match Sanu's talents as a passer, but Deering eventually seized the primary wildcat ball carrier role through a combination of Sanu wearing down from overuse, and Deering frankly possessing an explosive second gear that Rutgers had not seen since Tim Brown graduated.

Jeremy isn't going to be a traditional I-formation back, but he doesn't have to be. Think of him as rich man's Jordan Thomas, focusing on screen passes, off-tackle work, returns, and occasionally lining up in the slot - which is high praise considering that Thomas is no slouch himself, with the other prized true freshman leading the team in rushing yards last fall. Ordinarily, that kind of audition would be cause for assuming a greater role the following season. Well, not when you're on a team overflowing with bodies at the offensive skill positions, as Thomas was shuttled off to the similarly crowded defensive backfield through no fault of his own. That loud noise you just heard was of Paul Pasqualoni slamming his head into a brick wall.

With Huggins and Deering grabbing all of the highlights, De'Antwan "Rocket" Williams has turned into a bit of a forgotten man, despite showing considerable improvement during spring practice and in early returns from preseason fall camp. Williams wasn't Huggins in high school, but he was no slouch, having entered Rutgers as the presumed heir-apparent back of the future. How exactly do you go from future star, to stuck in limbo and fighting for table scraps in garbage time, with fans repeatedly pestering the media with questions as to why Schiano won't comment definitively about the back's status? Raw talent wasn't the question, as should be evidenced by this year's strides. There were always questions lingering in the background. Some guys just are better in practice instead of game situations (or vice versa.) Kirk Ciarrocca "coordinating" the offense into an indecipherable mess over the past two seasons didn't help either. Williams, like Huggins, is a traditional back, and should see more time in that role this fall.

If Williams is barely on the radar now, Jawan Jamison is a complete afterthought; no doubt hurt by his early injury in preseason camp. That'll happen when a program takes a late flyer on the guy. Last year, Jamison took a back seat as Casey Turner monopolized all of the attention. Then Turner was hurt, and transferred without taking a single in-game snap. Everyone was talking Williams, Martinek, and Turner. And yet through it all, Jamison remained a constant. Every so often, a beat reporter would chime in about how we shouldn't sleep on Turner, or query Schiano at his post-practice pressers about his play. Injuries and conditioning are worries, but thus far Jamison has shown a knack for sticking around as the proverbial overachiever. The other freshman back this fall, Ben Martin could end up following the same path if he doesn't eventually move to defense.

After three seasons as a traditional, straight-ahead bruising tailback, Joe Martinek moved to fullback over the spring in a move that was wildly popular with the overall Rutgers fan base (but less so around these parts.) They loved Brian Leonard; everyone does. To question his greatness would be the mother of all heresies. If there's anyone on the roster who can even be remotely compared to Leonard in any capacity, Rutgers fans have heard enough and are sold. They want a pass-catching fullback; ignoring how Jack Corcoran was underutilized in that role, or how Brian Leonard rarely lined up as a true fullback in two-back sets (he was largely a tailback in college, just as he has been in the NFL.) Frank Cignetti's offense at Pitt the past few years utilized the considerable talents of Henry Hynoski, who was sort of a do-everything type who could block, catch, run, everything at a respectable level.

Joe Martinek isn't that guy, but he may not be in the roster yet, with underclassmen Michael Burton and Don Bosco's Paul Canevari still likely a year or two away from contributing. Unfortunately, Rutgers doesn't really have much in the way of true fullbacks on the roster thanks to two years of recruiting a zillion athlete-types for Ciarrocca's offense. Edmond Laryea could crack a few skulls, but now he's back at linebacker. Robert Joseph has barely played while battling various injuries, and he's been touted as more of a pass catcher. Like it or not, due to the numbers game, it's probably going to be Martinek or bust this season at fullback.

Caveats are abound however; count on tight end Paul Carrezola seeing a fair bit of time in sort of a hybrid H-Back role in double TE sets, staying back a bit as D.C. Jefferson stretches the field. Of course, now that Frank Cignetti has the infinite army of awesome receivers at his disposal, there will be plenty of temptation to go full-on Ciarrocca and ask Chas Dodd to air the ball out of Shotgun, multi-receiver sets on every down. That' option, but last year proved it to be pretty fruitless, and Cignetti's track record points more towards a play-action (yay, Savon!), spread the ball around, quick release approach. Sort of a mix between the John McNulty and Craig Ver Steeg eras. The latter saw the far-underrated Sam Johnson play almost as much as Clark Harris, and that's probably what will end up happening this fall. Most likely, while Martinek is technically listed as a fullback, he'll see time in single-back, two TE sets; counted on as a reliable third down receiving and goal line option.

Heck yes, it's time to be excited. Rutgers finally is going to be Rutgers again, maddening inconsistency and all, and we have Savon Huggins to thank for it. The backfield won't be perfect, but there's a lot of depth at running back, enough that a Jordan Thomas could move to corner, or Casey Turner transfer without much cause for alarm or even batting an eye. You wish there was another bruising blocking fullback, a Hoagie Morales/Ishmael Medley-type to just flatten people, and open running lanes for Sayvonnnnnn to cut through, but that'll come in time. For now, just be thankful for The Great One, at least until we toss him aside as a flash in the pan and proclaim somebody else as the next big thing. And please, if it all possible, try to pronounce the guy's first name correctly; an Oprah-like inflection at the end certainly helps.