The Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team takes a break from practice with spring break this week. At OTB, we carry on.
This series reviews the state of each positional group in spring practice that runs throughout March into April and concludes with the spring game on April 14.
We continue with the Running backs.
Position coach: Nunzio Campanile
Key players lost: Gus Edwards, Robert Martin, Josh Hicks
Key players returning: Raheem Blackshear (So.), Trey Sneed (RSo.), Charles Snorweah (RJr.), Elijah Barnwell (RFr.)
Newcomers: Jon Hilliman (RSr.), Isaih Pacheco (Fr. - early enrollee)
What they did well in 2017: Make plays.
Edwards, Blackshear, Martin, and Hicks were virtually the entire offense outside of some catches from Jerome Washington. Blackshear was particularly effective in the passing game, scoring the game-winning TD on a wheel route against Purdue and also hauling in the team’s only TD against Michigan State when he burned them badly deep. Even though he didn’t make a ton of big plays rushing, the threat was there for him to break one every time, though Rutgers receivers couldn’t take advantage of extra men in the box. He should be even tougher to cover out of the backfield in 2018. Edwards had the winning touchdown against Maryland on a pass into the flat to beat a blitz as well.
Edwards was more slow and steady, but showed speed after breaking a tackle for a 75 yard run against the Boilermakers. Edwards (713 yards) and Martin (434 yards) need their production replaced including 10 touchdowns (also including one from Hicks). As the team got few big plays from receivers or quarterbacks, these guys did a lot of heavy lifting for Rutgers to manage to win even four games.
Needs Improvement: Chunk plays.
With the exception of Morgan State and Illinois, it felt like mostly three yards and a cloud of dust with this group. Blackshear ran for 238 yards on the season, but 189 of those came against Morgan St. and Illinois. I believe he had only three or four runs of 10+ yards on the year, and with his explosiveness that number has to increase. The counter was the go to with him in 2017, but new offensive coordinator John McNulty will need to find additional ways to get him in more space.
Hilliman before any injuries took their toll showed a lot more lateral agility than any of the Knights backs in 2017. He runs at people in traffic but also has a knack for taking good angles to the perimeter like Josh Hicks did earlier in his career. Unless he lost a step, I think he will be able to make a few more of those 15-20 yard runs where the last 5 may be falling forward. He demonstrated an ability to get yards in chunks at BC.
Sneed played a lot like Martin and Hicks in limited action in 2016, so it will be interesting how he has improved over the last year plus. Expect him to be deployed in the Robert Martin role from a year ago, spelling Hilliman and trying to wear defenses out between the tackles. When new position coach Nunzio Campanile sends him into the game with fresh legs, will he make the defense look slow and tired?
Changes expected in 2018
More than any other position on the team, we will see new faces in 2018 as 75% of the contributors have graduated and the group has a new coach in Campanile. In the NFL some teams and fans feel running backs are all the same, but for a team like Rutgers that needs an effective ground attack, that is simply not true. Like they did a season ago, Rutgers brings in a local grad transfer, but Jon Hilliman was a lot more productive at his previous stop than Gus Edwards. Hilliman decommitted from RU during the fall 2013 frenzy then scored 13 rushing touchdowns at Boston College during his true freshman campaign. His 26 rushing TDs are 7th all-time for the Eagles, so he brings a ton of experience to a young, unproven unit.
Pacheco played quarterback in high school, but will be a running back on the banks. RB is a position where true freshman can contribute (Martin, Hicks, Blackshear, Hilliman at BC) so he may find himself playing meaningful snaps if he shows an extra gear. He doesn’t seem to be THAT fast, but defenders never seem to catch up to him and his quick feet often prevent them from squaring him up.
Snorweah has speed which means he will get a look. Sneed took an unusual healthy sophomore redshirt with the depth ahead of him, but is a workout warrior and been impressive since the day he joined the program as an early enrollee in early 2016. Barnwell returns from injury and has the body to carry defenders.
Way too early predictions
Blackshear flashes, but spends some time dinged up on the sideline due to his physical style. Hilliman is about as productive as Gus Edwards, completely overwhelming lesser defensive fronts.
Charles Snorweah has awesome speed but never really contributed on game day. If Blackshear is banged up, he will have the first crack at being the speedy pass catcher out of the backfield, assuming he can pass block enough on third downs.
If Hilliman is injured or ineffective in short yardage, Elijah Barnwell may leap frog Sneed for those goal line reps. In High School, Barnwell simply showed a will you don’t see in every player, often using seemingly only determination to get the ball across the line.
This group loses a ton of production that can’t be replaced automatically. That said, the diversity of skillsets may actually be better in 2018 and hopefully McNulty can use that to his advantage with different personnel groupings, formations, and plays. Hilliman is a legit power 5 running back and Blackshear may continue down the path toward stardom. Expect an initial step back in production, but comparable numbers by season’s end. This group may drop down from among the best on the team to the middle of the pack, but still has talent and depth to make Ash more comfortable than quarterback, defensive line, or wide receiver.
Previously covered groups
One more time, thanks Gus Edwards for helping beat our “rival”: