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2019 Rutgers Football Position Review: Running Backs

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There’s talent, experience, and incoming upside.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Michigan State
Blackshear often had to make something out of nothing.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

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 13.

We continue with the Running backs, the best position on the team in all likelihood.

Position coach: Kolby Smith

Key players lost: Trey Sneed, Jon Hilliman

Key players returning: Isaih Pacheco (So.), Raheem Blackshear (Jr.), Charles Snorweah (RSr.), Elijah Barnwell (RSo.)

Newcomers: Two freshmen in summer.

What they did well in 2018: Make plays.

Blackshear was particularly effective in the passing game. Fans remember his two long touchdowns as a true freshman, but Raheem only hauled in seven receptions in 2017. In 2018, he exploded for 44 catches. His catch total was 16 more than the next best on the team (Bo Melton) while his 367 yards receiving also paced the club by more than 100 yards. Raheem also led the team in receiving touchdowns, albeit just two of the team’s five.

It would be easy to say Blackshear was THE offense at times, pacing the team’s rushing attack with 586 yards. Both he and the now departed Jon Hilliman (337 yards) averaged 4.1 yards per carry, which isn’t bad considering how there was virtually no passing attack to open things up for them. Hilliman also led the team with 6 touchdowns rushing.

Isaih Pacheco (551 yards) made some noise as a spring early enrollee and had to force the coaches to play him. Eventually they did and Isaih flashed in a big way. He averaged five yards per carry, partially inflated by a run that may be among the top five in the history of Rutgers football considering the opponent. Pacheco didn’t just barrel through the line, he outraced the nation’s #4 team and #1 defense at the time for 80 yards.

Needs Improvement: Three yards and a cloud of dust.

Early in the season, Hilliman flashed the instincts and vision that allowed him to score 28 touchdowns at Boston College. Unfortunately, RU’s early season success in short yardage eventually wore itself out as opponents crashed down hard with no threat of a pass. RU’s perimeter blocking with virtually the same personnel also took a step backward, so tosses and sweeps weren’t a viable alternative either. Hilliman was stopped on a few critical conversion attempts with no running room also had a bad fumble against Kansas. Blackshear also had a miscue against Kansas after already achieving first down yardage. Both were costly and contributed to the defeat.

Pacheco for his part seemed to bring extra pep to the offensive line when he was in there. Maybe his presence as a former high school quarterback, steamrolling of opponents backups, or some other factor inspired them more than the other backs for some reason. Whatever it was, Pacheco should be the featured short yardage back in 2019, unless Rutgers goes completely outside the box with incoming freshman defensive lineman / halfback Rayyan Buell.

Yes, short yardage is on the backs of the offensive line as much as it is the ball carrier, but a few more plays from the RB per game will help the offensive line wear down the men across the line of scrimmage from them.

Changes expected in 2019

Despite losing three of their top four running backs from 2017, running back was among the best positions on the team again in 2018. They lose short yardage weapon Hilliman and well-rounded understudy Trey Sneed, who elected to transfer. Charles Snorweah has awesome speed but never really contributed on game day outside of a last minute TD drive against Maryland. His last chance as the speed back may have passed with two highly touted recruits joining this summer. Consummate team player Elijah Barnwell comes back to offense after being needed at linebacker in 2018. Just a redshirt sophomore, he may be able to replace Sneed as the back-up in a variety of roles and is a very tough runner when given the opportunity.

Nunzio Campanile did a good job with the unit last season but has shifted to tight ends. In his place, former Louisville and NFL running back Kolby Smith was brought in to take the reins in 2019 after the offseason coaching carousel. Smith, as has been mentioned every time anyone talks to him, was a member of the Cardinals squad that fell to RU in the Pandemonium in Piscataway game. Hopefully he’s not already regretting his decision.

Smith was gifted not just one, but two top incoming freshman recruits. Aaron Young (Avery’s younger brother) flipped from Michigan State at the 11th hour, immediately becoming the highest rated recruit in the class. The player he leapfrogged for the top distinction was Kay’Ron Adams who was an average at best three star prospect as a junior, but ascended near four star territory after a strong senior year. Both players, like Pacheco last year, will need to earn playing time over the returnees who, incredibly for the first time in their careers are in the same system for a second consecutive year.

Way too early predictions

Blackshear flashes, but his touches are more strategic as Pacheco is leaned on heavily early in games with RU trying to establish the run at least a bit before abandoning it entirely. In retrospect, Rutgers threw a lot on first down to loosen up the coverage in 2018, but it rarely worked. Then on second and ten, defenses assumed run every time seemingly every drive. McNulty will learn from the past season’s failures. Whether RU has a quarterback who can execute the revisions is a question for a future post in this series.

With no true fullback on the roster, tight ends like Johnathan Lewis will find themselves in an H-back role with regularity though McNulty should expand on his pro-style, two tailback sets in 2019. Blackshear doesn’t possess the skills to completely become a wide receiver, but he is effective enough that lining him out wide and then putting him in motion should at least tip the defenses hand to what coverage they are in. Whether it’s Raheem or one of the freshmen, the Scarlet Knights really need to master the art of the jet sweep to put some pressure on the perimeter of the defense that was non-existent outside of the occasional screen in 2018.

The offensive line will take some time to gel on gameday, but is built more for run blocking than pass blocking with the exception of center Mike Maietti. Once they are operating cohesively, Pacheco should be able to power for yards to serve as the offense’s bread and butter.

Previously covered groups

Linebackers

Defensive Line

Defensive backs

Tight Ends / Fullbacks

Good luck to Jon Hilliman pursuing the next level, so far, so good!