Josh Hicks and Robert Martin both emerged during the latter part of their freshman seasons a year ago. Hicks led Rutgers in rushing in wins against Indiana, Maryland and North Carolina to close out last season. He was named MVP of the Quick Lane Bowl in the win over North Carolina, rushing for 202 yards on only 19 carries with one touchdown. Martin broke out for 83 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Indiana and also performed well in the bowl game, rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns. There was hope going into the 2015 season they would continue their progress and develop into one of the best backfields in the Big Ten conference.
With senior Paul James returning after his season ending knee injury from a year ago, there were questions with how coach Kyle Flood would rotate the three backs. One concern was whether there would be enough carries to go around for all three, in addition to Justin Goodwin, who is serving as the primary third down back. It is obvious through three games that Hicks and Martin deserve to be the primary two backs used moving forward. Unfortunately, James doesn't appear to have the same burst and power he once had, struggling with only 112 yards rushing on 31 carries, just 3.6 yards per carry.
However, Hicks and Martin have picked up where they left off last season, as they both bring an identical 6.3 yards per carry average into this weekend's match-up against Kansas. Consider that Hicks and Martin have combined for just fifty-six percent of the carries on offense, but account for seventy-seven percent of the total rushing yards. That stat alone justifies more carries for the sophomore duo. Hicks has rushed for 258 yards on 41 carries and two touchdowns. Martin has rushed for 150 yards on 24 carries and one touchdown. Their production warrants a combined 30+ carries a game, but their opportunities have been sporadic so far. They have made little impact catching passes out of the backfield as well, combining for only 4 receptions for just 28 yards.
After the past two games, the grumblings have grown louder as offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels has been very conservative with his play calling. I am surprised he hasn't thrown more to the backs, especially against Penn State, whose defense generated pressure on quarterback Chris Laviano all night. Laviano lost his security blanket with the suspension of Leonte Carroo, and calling designed short passes for the backs could help him get into rhythm. He will certainly need outlets to throw to while under pressure, once Rutgers starts facing the defenses of Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in October.
As frustrating as the handling of the quarterbacks has been, the management of the running backs is becoming an issue as well. Most great backs get better as they get more into a game, and Hicks and Martin seem to be no different. The fact that the depth chart still lists the order of backs as Hicks or Martin or James or Goodwin is silly. Hicks and Martin are the perfect combination and 1-2 punch for the offense. James makes sense as the third down back, as he can block on pass protections and also catch passes out of the backfield. Hicks should get 15-20 carries a game with Martin behind him with 10-15 carries. Depending on who gets hot, be flexible and allow either to get the ball more. James can compliment in certain situations, mostly on third down.
With Kansas this weekend, it's a good opportunity to utilize the rotation in this way and evaluate the results. Rutgers will move into the bye week able to fine tune the offensive game plan and be ready to implement it against Michigan State at home. Something has to change, because the offense is struggling. As loud as the calls are for Hayden Rettig to replace Laviano, it's time to put the running backs in position to maximize their effectiveness. It's time to put the ball in the hands of Hicks and Martin, early and often.