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Rutgers Football 2018: Running Back Preview

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Team loses three productive seniors, adds a grad transfer.

Purdue v Rutgers
Blackshear is the X-factor.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Camp continues for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team as does our series of positional previews, working our way from the perceived weakest to strongest units that will be published every few days. Next up is the team’s running backs who lose a lot of experience, but still are one of the more talented groups on the team. Fullbacks will be covered with the tight ends. For last year’s preview, click here.

Position coach: Nunzio Campanile (1st season)

Key players lost: Gus Edwards, Robert Martin, Josh Hicks

Key players returning: Raheem Blackshear (So.), Trey Sneed (RSo.), Charles Snorweah (RJr.)

Newcomers: Jon Hilliman (RSr.), Isaih Pacheco (Fr. - early enrollee)

Question 1: Can they make more game changing plays?

With Rutgers margin for error so thin in 2017, the running backs often had the ball in key situations during winnable games. Much of the time, a key play was a third and short where a pile of bodies was followed by a visit from the chain gang. For the most part, the running backs did a pretty nice job reaching the line to gain. The problem was, relying on three yards and a cloud of dust as the primary offensive strategy was not effective against the Big Ten elite.

So can the Scarlet Knights rip off some big runs that would go a long way to getting defenses on their heels? Raheem Blackshear flipped field position and had a nice TD against Illinois. Gus Edwards broke one tackle and went 75 yards against Purdue for a momentum taking touchdown. Edwards and Martin had a few key runs plus Edwards winning touchdown catch against Maryland. After that, the big runs were few and far between against Big Ten competition. The Scarlet Knights have to find ways to get chunks in the run game or else a young passing attack may be under even more pressure.

Question 2: Are they ready to cause defensive coordinators to game plan around them?

The question as to whether the offensive line is ready for a bigger playbook is huge to opposition game planning. On Raheem Blackshear’s key runs against Illinois they came in virtually identical formations or the exact same play call. By the time a few weeks had passed, opponents were ready for the subset of plays Rutgers trimmed their playbook to. If Rutgers can show more looks and add plays to the arsenal, defensive coordinators will have to be prepared and potentially overwhelm their players with information.

In addition, it’s not just the plays that keep defensive coordinators up at night, it’s the players. In 2017, Gus Edwards may have been the best offensive player for the Scarlet Knights, but he probably didn’t give OCs nightmares (though defensive backs may have had a few). Raheem Blackshear adds a game breaking ability that if grown a little more, will make defenses account for him and should allow Rutgers to dictate more situations. Isaih Pacheco has flashed in camp, perhaps he may be dynamic as well. Jon Hilliman showed a lot of great running at Boston College and if he can be a little more elusive than Edwards, could impact this as well. If offensive coordinators are forced to key on a specific running back like they did for Brian Leonard or Ray Rice, the quarterback may have an easier time diagnosing coverages.

Question 3: What’s new?

Hilliman was a freshman star at Boston College before seeing his playing time decrease due to injury and emergence of other players. His stats were not significantly worse by any stretch. Expect Trey Sneed off a redshirt and Hilliman to get the power run carries.

Pacheco was a quarterback in High School who was listed as fourth on the running back depth chart per Ash earlier this fall. He seems to quickly be ascending though after all the talk on media day. Elijah Barnwell has been moved to linebacker to help with depth, but could return later this season or next season.

Question 4: Best case, worst case, and most likely scenarios?

Best case

Offensive coordinator John McNulty is successful at getting Blackshear in space forcing defenses to key on him and opening up the rest of the offense. This allows more pro style sets with Hilliman and Blackshear seeing the field at the same time. Sneed is ready to give Hilliman a rest anytime he needs it and Pacheco the same for Blackshear.

Worst case

The pass game to receivers never gets going and 2018 looks like 2017, but slightly worse with an offensive line that doesn’t jell quick enough. Blackshear gets injured and there’s no game breaker anywhere on the offense.

Most likely

Hilliman takes a pounding like Gus Edwards did in 2017 with Sneed ready to run the same set of plays. Blackshear and Pacheco have a set of plays with Snorweah in the event of an emergency. The quarterbacks do enough to create a little more space for the backs on runs and in the flat.

Players listed on the current roster

#2 Raheem Blackshear (5’9”, 192 lbs.) Sophomore

Two-star recruit? Raheem made an impression early in the 2017 season, but after that had some nagging injuries. Likely the lack of practice time prevented him from doing more than his counter left and wheel route effectively.

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

Sneed impressed after enrolling early in 2016 and getting the stripe taken off before any other running backs. Had Hilliman not arrived, Trey would probably be looked at to be a workhorse. He is in the Robert Martin mold but a little bigger with less cutback ability so it will be interesting to see how he performs this season.

#10 Isaih Pacheco (5’11”, 210 lbs.) Freshman

Pacheco has been turning heads so far in camp. There are no certainties in the running back group this year so carries are there if he can produce.

#23 Jon Hilliman (6’0”, 225 lbs.) Redshirt Senior

Like Gus Edwards a year ago, Hilliman arrives as a bell cow back from a Power 5 program. Unlike Gus, Hilliman spent plenty of time as the Eagles primary running back in his carrier. He’s not as physically gifted, but seems to understand angles and setting up blocks quite well.

#24 Charles Snorweah (5’10”, 180 lbs.) Redshirt Junior

A track star back in high school, Snorweah was academically ineligible at one point. Charles also got the Hicks, Goodwin, and now Barnwell position switch treatment as he helped out at defensive back earlier in his career. So despite being a redshirt junior, he does not nearly have as much experience as you’d expect at the running back spot meaning it’s possible he could be a late bloomer.

#28 Aslan Pugh (6’0”, 218 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Aslan should get a heavy load in practice with only six tailbacks listed on the roster. At least four others are competing for the starting job, so the walk-on Pugh probably will be asked to take a pounding on the scout team. He has the size to play eventually and at the running back spot you never know. Remember the 2008 Denver Broncos who lost something like six RBs to Injured Reserve?

Incoming Freshmen

Pacheco enrolled early as the only scholarship addition. None of the defensive backs seem ticketed to switch over.

Additional Walk-Ons

None on the current roster, expect a few new names and faces when the rosters expand after the fall semester begins.

Long term outlook: Running back is a position that may be the hardest to predict long-term. Many of the best football players suit up at running back so they often possess skills to help out at receiver, linebacker, or defensive back. As a result, often RBs are plucked to help plug depth concerns anytime the running back spot has depth itself, like Barnwell this year. Injuries are common, too, but all this potential turnover is offset by the fact that recruits can often play as true freshmen. Blackshear played right away last season and Hilliman started as a true freshman when he joined Boston College. Pacheco may do the same.

New position Coach Nunzio Campanile has downplayed his connections to coaches of the North Jersey powers as he remained focused in the offseason on his role as the Scarlet Knight running back coach. Expect a splash in recruiting sooner than later that can help keep the running back position with enough talent to be an average Big Ten group. New Jersey has so many high school football players, finding running backs and linebackers every year is an easier assignment than other spots on the field.

Previous positional reviews:

Defensive Line

Wide Receiver

Special Teams

Quarterback

Offensive Line