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Rutgers Football 2017 Preview: Running Back

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Only one football, who will carry it?

Arkansas State v Miami
Edwards has gotten a lot of praise in camp
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With practices for the fall season underway, we continue positional previews with the Scarlet Knights 2017 running backs. (2016 mid-season review here). All of the players listed as running backs, some tailbacks others fullbacks will be reviewed in turn by jersey number, followed by the freshmen. Find our recap of Coach Erb’s Friday press conference here.

#4 Trey Sneed (5’10”, 214 lbs.) Sophomore

Sneed burst on the scene as an early enrollee in spring 2016 and was one of the first players to be Knighted. After that he was always in mix, getting a few carries in games while being one of the most consistent members of the special teams units. He was the only player who got any props in the Michigan game and wasn’t much of a factor after that, fourth on the depth chart. Coach Erb had positive things to say about him and he could surprise by overtaking multiple seniors on this list for playing time. Whatever happens this season, he is in a good place to fill the roles of Hicks, Martin, and perhaps Edwards as the bigger back with some speed in 2018.

#7 Robert Martin (5’11”, 212 lbs.) Senior

The presumed starter coming into camp, Martin is closing in on the top 10 all-time at Rutgers for career rushing yards, currently at 1,822 yards and 15 career TD. He led the conference in average yards after contact in 2015. Whenever he has played in his career, he has done well, so barring injury, he has to get touches in 2017. There have been injuries especially in off-season camp that hindered his development. Erb said he really played well last week and does not make mental errors. If the offensive line can open some holes or the passing attack can limit the number of defenders in the box you have to watch out for his ability to make the first man miss especially on a cutback if that defender is not meeting him near the line of scrimmage.

#8 Josh Hicks (5’10”, 210 lbs.) Senior

The lone former Bowl game MVP on this list, Hicks was a forgotten man for parts of 2015 and 2016. Coach Ash mentioned in the 2016 post-mortem that the staff needs to find more ways to get their best athletes on the field and Hicks seemed like exhibit A. The Florida native obliterates arm tackles, made perhaps the most impressive effort in recent Rutgers football, and always falls forward. Despite the team’s struggles in 2015 Josh was the best short yardage runner in the Big Ten! And after all this, will he even get a carry this year? If you were playing NCAA football on dynasty mode you’d surely redshirt him barring an injury to Edwards or Martin, but this is real college football and he’d like to get a real paycheck next year. If Edwards falters, Hicks has to be the short yardage back and maybe more than that.

Rutgers v North Carolina
Hicks best game was in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

#13 Gus Edwards (6’1”, 235 lbs.) Redshirt Senior

Edwards was viewed as a guy to add depth, especially as a big back. OTB did an interview with State of the U when he signed on which mentioned doubts about Gus’s style of play. Then he turned heads with his commitment, intensity, and power/speed combination. Coach Ash specifically mentioned him as a guy who has impressed, as did Coach Kill, a guy who comes ready to play every day. It sounds right now he will be the lead back in week one. With his size, it’s doubtful he would be removed in short yardage. He has the potential to be a monster.

#24 Charles Snorweah (5’10”, 178 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

A guy who had to help out at defensive back early in his career and born in Liberia, Snorweah is back at running back in 2017. With respect to Hayden Rettig, I don’t think anyone in the last 15 years of Rutgers football with the same physical talent has gotten less game opportunity to show what he can do. Part of that the position switch (which Hicks and Justin Goodwin also persevered through), and the production of the guys in front of him. For those who didn’t know his speed, he blew past a bunch of students at the spring game festivities while in full pads. For a team that looked for speed in the offseason, Snorweah ran a 4.41 in the 40 in high school track and that’s why he wasn’t training for football year round like many other members of the Knights. Seeing action in 8 games last year on special teams and none on offense, there is still plenty of potential for him to breakout with another spring season under his belt.

#27 McDerby Ceneus (5’8”, 190 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

A football, wrestling, and track athlete at West Orange, Ceneus spent his first year at William Paterson. If he ever carries the ball in a game, it will have to be one of the coolest names of an RU player ever to be announced on television. The walk-on is unfortunately low on eligibility in a position group stacked with bigger, more experienced guys who have done it before.

#28 Aslan Pugh (6’0”, 215 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Aslan would likely be considered a “big back” on other teams whereas at RU, Hicks, Martin, and Sneed are all about his build and Edwards is bigger. Another walk on, he hails from Wilmington, DE like former Knight, now Charger, Andre Patton. Just a redshirt freshman, he could earn a scholarship eventually.

#38 Jim Brady (6’1”, 237 lbs.) Redshirt Freshman

Brady was at linebacker before the re-insertion of the fullback position to the team’s roster. Hailing from Egg Harbor, he excelled in wrestling (sound familiar) and on the gridiron. Since he and Max Anthony have been so impressive, the staff gave DeVera a look at linebacker last week. With Jerome Washington the only tight end on the roster who is known for blocking at this juncture, Brady could get rotations at fullback and H-back.

#44 Max Anthony (6’0”, 240 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Anthony, the less recognizable of the two guys with the same last name in spring camp seems to have the edge in the fullback battle. A preferred walk-on, he is the type of low risk signing that was one of Flood’s successes and OTB sure liked it. You can see in the highlights how strong he is at the point of attack and the reason he didn’t get more interest was a senior year injury. At the moment, he appears to be the starting H-back.

Iowa v Rutgers
Martin tallied over 100 yards against the Hawkeyes
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Incoming Freshmen

#20 Elijah Barnwell (5’11”, 205 lbs.)

Barnwell was almost hidden by the staff until the last days before Signing Day 2017. He has been overshadowed by Blackshear thus far, but when legendary Piscataway coach Dan Higgins says you had the biggest impact of anyone in his tenure at the storied program there is no need for any more hype. With three bigger backs seniors in 2017, I expect him to redshirt and potentially be the goal line ball carrier in 2018, perhaps even the thunder half of a combo with Snorweah or Blackshear’s lightning.

#25 Raheem Blackshear (5’9”, 185 lbs.)

Considered by some sources only a two-star recruit, Blackshear has turned heads with his quickness in training camp already. You can see why, despite his rating, he had several offers, including the one he left at the last moment to sign with RU, in Michigan State. Coach Erb mentioned he brings a unique skillset to the position. With none of the guys ahead of him truly showing that scatback receiving potential, he could be playing first quarter downs against Washington.

#40 Brendan DeVera (6’0”, 242 lbs.)

Also a consensus two-star recruit, in his case because he didn’t project at one specific position, DeVera is being used all over the field. He recently was moved primarily to middle linebacker, but was specifically recruited by Jerry Kill as an H-back. He is still listed at running back on the team’s roster and seems like the ideal fit at punt protector if nothing else in week 1. The dude is a football player who will be a multi-year contributor on the banks if the coaching staff sticks to their word of maximizing the skillsets of their players.

Predictions:

Personnel: There are plenty of capable ball carriers in this group and Chris Ash came out and said that it is no one’s job to keep all five (Edwards, Martin, Hicks, Sneed, and Blackshear) happy. Don’t expect any individual player to rack up the stats. If anyone does, I’d guess it is Edwards against inferior competition.

Edwards looks like the lead dog of the “Erbivores” right now, Martin closing the gap from second team, with Blackshear filling the scatback role potentially. Edwards or Hicks will likely draw short yardage carries, though Martin is more than capable in those situations as well. If the staff feels Blackshear is not ready, they could plug and play Snorweah in that spot who has made some nice catches in camp, or possibly use someone like Janarion Grant or Dacoven Bailey in the backfield.

In terms of superlatives, there is not a lot of separation with this group falling into two major groupings. The big cutback RBs Martin, Hicks, Edwards, Sneed, and Barnwell being one with the other two scholarship guys being true “speed backs”. (Snorweah and Blackshear). If I had to guess: Fastest 40 (Snorweah), best 60 (Sneed), best shuttle run (Blackshear), strongest overall (Hicks), least mistakes (Martin), best after contact beyond line of scrimmage (Martin), best after contact at the line (Hicks), best stiff arm (Edwards), most momentum with the ball as per sports science (Edwards), best hands (Blackshear, Snorweah?), best blitz pickup (Martin? Sneed?). This is not an easy exercise.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers
Snorweah had this huge hit on special teams against the Illini.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Scheme: If the passing game can look functional, there should be a lot more room for the running backs to gain yards in 2017. The staff did not take advantage of the depth at this position a year ago much to the chagrin of many fans, but Coach Kill has ensured the masses that there will be more personnel groupings this year. Adding a fullback, H-back, or tight end is consistent with the Big Ten Network crew’s assessment. The team’s base offense is probably an offset I with three receivers, a tailback, and an H-back who could be virtually anyone (second running back, fullback, tight end, even 6th offensive lineman). Minor wrinkles include one of the receivers being a flexed out tight end (maybe Griffin-Stewart), a shotgun with split backs, or the H-back going in all sorts of motion from virtually anywhere in the formation to virtually anywhere else.

To take advantage, and if I was playing with this team in NCAA Football 14 on PS3 (wink wink), expect a heavy dose of shotgun with three wide, an H-back, and a tailback. The slot receiver could be a “running back”, the H-back could be a tight end, fullback, or a second tailback. Also expect pistol formations, perhaps a package specifically for Gio or J. Lewis at QB that feature two receivers to one side, a tight end, H-back (full or second tail), and a tailback. I like the idea of quick hitters with perhaps Hicks or Edwards in that H-back position to gain a few quick yards. If the staff has a specific package of these plays for Lewis, it might make sense to have a specific RB that he can feel comfortable with, maybe a spot for Trey Sneed. In goal line formation, possibly Anthony and Brady on the field with one or two tight ends to block for Hicks or Edwards. With the receiver group so deep, it probably doesn’t make sense to run many plays without any of them on the field.

It will be interesting to see if the team uses one of the versatile receivers in jet sweep situations like Grant, Mitchell, Harris, Bailey, or even Bo Melton. It’s entirely possible if one of the running backs shows enough promise as a receiver, he might instead inherit this role. Blackshear is the most obvious candidate as a guy who should see time at running back and receiver. Hicks also can run jet sweeps. DeVera could get a look in what I would call the “anything can happen” personnel grouping. Especially if the team struggles early or spices it up against a team like Ohio State, they could become completely unpredictable in a formation with Gio/Lewis, Grant, DeVera, Bailey, Harris, and Melton who all can throw passes on gadget plays.

On special teams, Snorweah will battle some of the freshmen wideouts and DBs for a gunner spot. Robert Martin played punt coverage last year but shouldn’t have to this year. Sneed should be on several special units. Punt and kick returning spots are wide open alongside Grant. The staff may also elect not to use Grant on every return freeing up more opportunity for one of this talented group to touch the ball. Hicks hasn’t returned many kicks, but he or Blackshear probably are the best fits there among this group. Fullbacks will have plenty of blocking responsibilities on specials.

Long term outlook: Barring an injury redshirt for Martin or Hicks, this group will lose its three most experienced players (along with Edwards) after this season. That means the staff will choose one of the underclassmen as the main guy they envision for 2018 so someone has game experience toting the rock.

With two true freshmen tailbacks, the highly regarded recruit Stevie Scott verbally committed, plus Sneed in the same mold as those players that are graduating, the staff should feel at least okay going into 2018 with the group. Also losing Bolin to graduation, it means Gio, Lewis, or one of the dual threat current verbal commit QB’s will likely bring more of a running option to the offense next season. Snorweah or Blackshear would be running the option or Sneed/Barnwell could be used as a single back to both carry the ball and block QB keepers.

Overall: Most teams have plenty of depth and skill at running back, but Rutgers has even more than most. Despite the highly hyped stable of running backs, don’t expect the offensive line to overwhelm opposing teams in 2017 in the run game for huge gains all over the field. The position group is the best the team has to offer other than maybe cornerback and its best chance to be elite, if Edwards puts it all together. If the offense can throw and catch the ball, this group could really wear opponents down. Camp is almost over, so let’s hope Edwards can deliver his message on gameday!

Don’t Miss the Other Previews in our Series:

Wide receiver

Defensive line

Tight end

Linebacker

Special Teams

Offensive Line

NOTE: I am not the OTB staff member to invent the term “Erbivores” and do not take credit. The person who coined the phrase may chose to reveal him or herself at any time!