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Rutgers Best Backfield: Votes are in!

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Austin and Jennings highlight the comments.

Texas Bowl: Rutgers v Kansas State
The 2006 team celebrates another victory.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Last Wednesday you voted on the most talented backfields in Rutgers Football history, here’s the results with some thoughts below.

Poll

Which running back corps had the most talent in Scarlet Knight history?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    2014: Five guys all had a ton of talent and stats back it up.
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    2011: You try to tackle Jamison or Martinek!
    (1 vote)
  • 90%
    2006: Um, how is this not the only choice?
    (331 votes)
  • 4%
    1995: The question is physical talent, right?
    (18 votes)
  • 0%
    1949: Gold rush 100 years later.
    (0 votes)
  • 1%
    1923: These guys played O and D, imagine them today!
    (4 votes)
  • 1%
    Other: And I promise to comment why!
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    2017: I’ll be the one who say I told you so in five years.
    (2 votes)
366 votes total Vote Now

So for the results and our best explanation as to why the tally came in that way ...

  1. 2006. This was a landslide, but now the people have confirmed it with 90% of the vote. The 2006 backfield featured Brian Leonard and Ray Rice who would both get drafted in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft were the best. Both players were Heisman hopefuls in their careers, Rice was an impact player in his NFL career after shattering the career rushing mark at RU with 4,926 career rushing yards. Leonard is actually second to Rice in career attempts (passing “JJ” Jennings who previously had the mark) and 5th in yards with 2,775 despite not being the feature back his final two seasons. Rice (1st - 49) passed everyone else including Leonard (tied for 3rd) with 32 rushing touchdowns. Rice also has six of the team’s 18 ever 200 yard rushing games.
  2. 1995 finished in second place (5%) rather comfortably albeit nowhere near first. In terms of physical talent, the one-two punch of Willis and Presley may be on par with Rice and Leonard. With a different athletic administration setting up the program to compete in the Big East with facilities, training, and coaching, both players likely could have reached more of their potential. Under a staff like Schiano’s they probably would have been more ready for the pros as well. Willis (3,114) broke JJ Jennings’s all-time rushing record (2,935) as a true junior before foregoing his senior season. Presley finished 4th all-time in rushing yards. If we are talking about depth even outside of NFL talent, Chad Bosch was also on this team and set the record for longest run in school history (90 yards) the following year. This team was also hurt by malcontent in the locker room, one of the reasons the Graber regime got replaced by Terry Shea soon after.
  3. 1923 was edged out by “Other” for the bronze medal in this week’s poll. I like the respect for two-way players in an era when pads were much less protective and there was no real reason to play other than love of the game. Benkert and Waite played in a less specialized NFL than we have today, but both were starters in their careers. Benkert’s career touchdown record stood (32) from 1924 until Bill Austin tied him in 1958 and was not broken until 1973 by Jennings.

Notable: The composition of the list that generated the poll was attempting to get at situations where Rutgers had good depth at the running back position, not simply one back. The 2014 team only got three votes, but from a depth standpoint, that group was deeper in the 3rd, 4th, and even 5th spots than probably any other. I do agree that the injured Paul James (2nd all-time in per carry average) and Robert Martin (7th) / Josh Hicks (5th) duo were not as good individually as the others being discussed.

Missing in action: The title of the poll should have been named, “deepest running back groups in Rutgers history.” However, even with a change like that, several readers astutely pointed out that the Rutgers running back corps led by Heisman finalist Bill Austin were not on the list. JJ Jennings’s group was also not included. So to be fair to the teams from 1971-1973 and 1958-1961 teams, the secondary ball carriers may have been as talented as others on this list but didn’t get much burn because Austin and Jennings were so good, why would the coaching staff offload responsibility? And it’s not like today with combines, pro days, and constant coverage that ends up making a career college backup quarterback who never took a meaningful snap (Matt Cassell) getting multiple starting jobs in the NFL.

Austin was 6th in 1958 Heisman voting (747 rushing yards, 15 TDs, 5.2 ypa) and had Lloyd Seaman (182 yards) plus Arnie Byrd (193 yards). The coaching staff at that time spread the ball around i 1959, as evidenced by seven players with 30 carriers and over 100 yards, but no player with even 55 carries or 200 yards on the season. So a real argument could be made for depth during that stretch of football, culminating in the 1961 undefeated season when Steve Simms (614 yards, 5 TD), Sam Mudie (403, 10), Bill Thompson (372, 3), and Pierce Frauenheim (190, 5) all were forces to be reckoned with.

The 1971-73 squads did not have as much team success as the ‘58-’61 stretch, but were solid in the ground game as well. Jennings was not the feature back as a sophomore (his first year of eligibility), but 3rd on the team in yardage with 320, behind Larry Robertson and Bill Donaldson. Then Jennings exploded in ‘72 with 1262 yards and 9 TD. In his final campaign, JJ went completely nuclear in ‘73 with a 1353 yards and 21 TDs (including five in a game against Princeton) to lead the nation in scoring. Ron Shycko was a solid backup with over 400 yards in each of those years. So that group definitely deserves recognition even though Jennings never played in the NFL but was a star in the old World League.

Thanks for participating and look for another opportunity to vote this Wednesday. The category this week is to cast a ballot for who you feel are the most intimidating players in Rutgers Football program history! Let the debate begin!