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Rutgers Football 2019: Running Back Preview

Team loses Hilliman and two transfers, adds two heralded freshmen.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Rutgers at Michigan State
Raheem will benefit from a better passing attack.
Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Camp continues for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team as does our series of positional previews, published every few days. Next up is the team’s running backs who are the best group on the team outside of special teams. Fullbacks will be covered with the tight ends. For last year’s preview, click here.

Position coach: Kolby Smith (1st season)

Key players lost: Jonathan Hilliman (NFL), Charles Snorweah (Grad Transfer), Trey Sneed (Transfer)

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

Newcomers: Aaron Young (Fr.), Kay’Ron Adams (Fr.)

Question 1: Is depth now a problem?

With three of the five 2018 scholarship running backs no longer on the roster, depth questions pop up at the position for the first time since 2013 after Jawan Jamison left early for the NFL. Last year’s backfield was crowded even after three departures following the 2017 campaign. With carries hard to come by as the offense didn’t run enough plays and was rarely trying to eat clock, Pacheco established himself alongside Blackshear and Hilliman. As a result Trey Sneed barely sniffed the field on offense and spring standout speedster Charles Snorweah only saw garbage time.

Hilliman wowed scouts at pro day and is in the NFL. With the emergence of Pacheco and everyone associated with the program seemingly coming to the realization Isaih didn’t get enough carries as is, Sneed was likely the odd man out and transferred immediately after the season. This had the unintended consequence of getting more touches for Charles Snorweah who carved up first-team defenders in the spring game when he got into open space. Snorweah then also elected to move on and as a player who continues to improve, may end up getting a look for the NFL if he puts up big numbers even against lesser competition.

So that leaves Pacheco and Blackshear, surely the two best remaining players on the offense regardless of position. Then Elijah Barnwell who was moved to linebacker last year is back at running back as well. The real boost here comes from incoming freshmen Aaron Young and Kay’Ron Adams, the two highest rated players in the entire 2019 recruiting class. They will not have pressure to contribute right away, but if they turn heads could easily get themselves on the field since running back is often the easiest position for true freshmen to excel.

Question 2: Can they do more without a significantly improved passing game?

Yes, but likely not much. Pacheco is a tank who had the speed to outrun the entire Michigan defense, but is still learning techniques after having been a quarterback in high school. Blackshear led the team in rushing AND receiving, what’s more to say about his performance? The incoming freshmen have talent though no one can get yards and touchdowns without blocking in front of them.

Offensive coordinator John McNulty is back for his second consecutive season in the role, the first person to do that in a decade. He will use a number of approaches within the pro set offensive scheme to try and improve the offense. Rutgers abandoned a lot of the pre-snap motion from early in the 2018 season, but hopefully can add some back in to tip off quarterbacks and running backs on the individual defensive responsibilities. Doing so should also improve the success of plays like jet sweeps that may feature multiple tailbacks.

Ultimately, no matter how much better Rutgers is on the ground, they need help from the passing attack. Blackshear did his part on screens especially and understands blitz pickup. Any contributions from Pacheco or the freshmen should include protection AND getting yards after the catch on check downs. Beyond that, receivers and tight ends need to be light years better at playing pitch and catch with the quarterbacks to see improvement as a team.

Question 3: What else is new?

For the first time in a decade, not much else. Kolby Smith is the new position coach as Nunzio Campanile moves over to Tight Ends. Smith played against Rutgers in the Big East at Louisville where he coached the last five years after bouncing around the NFL. His job is going to focus on sorting out the pecking order and pushing each player to be as well-rounded as possible, the team needs it. McNulty should be calling plays to highlight each player’s strengths.

A huge wildcard is the offensive line which loses its two best linemen. Overall there are plenty of question marks, the biggest of which is short yardage. The Scarlet Knights in recent years boasted tremendous pile movers in Josh Hicks, Gus Edwards, and Hilliman. Pacheco, Barnwell, and Adams are probably not as good as those three predecessors yet due to lack of experience. If Rutgers can’t convert first downs in shorter down and distance, we could have a Groundhog Day situation.

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

Best case

Pacheco takes the next step and is a tackle breaking machine. Blackshear is utilized in jet sweeps, the slot, and provides more space in the run game because the passing game forces teams to respect downfield throws. Young (for Blackshear) and Adams (for Pacheco) step in as needed for some fresh legs to keep the offense in rhythm and opposing defense sucking wind. Barnwell scores in short yardage and plays some pro set alongside Pacheco.

Worst case

The pass game is somehow worse, forcing Blackshear to accumulate tons of empty yards on screen passes. Pacheco gets injured and no one steps in as the punishing bruiser in his stead. No one else is ready and only Blackshear has the skills in blitz pickup.

Most likely

Blackshear and Pacheco continue to share the load. Somebody gets banged up and one of the freshmen steps in with some success to create a lot of competition. Young or Adams flashes potential, but is inconsistent.

Players listed on the current roster

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

Blackshear was known by the media as the team’s best offensive player per Coach McNulty. He at times was a one-man operation, leading the team in both rushing and receiving. Ideally, the staff would like to be more selective with his usage and with his second year in the same system, hopefully can be schemed more space to make plays.

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

Pacheco turned heads in camp last year then backed it up as one of the few players on the roster who could inflict significant damage against Big Ten powers. He had a limited role on third down because of his inexperience catching and in pass protection, but the sky is the limit.

#20 Elijah Barnwell (5’11”, 209 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Elijah was the ultimate competitor and winner in high school at Piscataway. He came back to running back after helping out at linebacker last year. After dropping down to 200 pounds before last year, he’s back up to 209 perhaps to get some short yardage carries or possibly even play some fullback.

#33 Parker Day (5’8”, 191 lbs.) Redshirt Sophomore

Parker appeared in two games on special teams as a walk-on from Toms River.

Incoming Freshmen

#4 Aaron Young (5’10”, 195 lbs.)

Aaron was a steal for the Scarlet Knights, but of course it helps his brother excelled as a true freshman last season. He has excellent speed and likely will carve a role out somewhere as a true freshmen, even if it is as a return man.

#22 Kay’Ron Adams (5’10”, 208 lbs.)

Like Young, Adams has some excellent family ties. His father is Sam Adams, the former NFL Defensive Tackle with the Ravens and Bills most notably. Kay’Ron’s stock skyrocketed after he pledged to RU and had a great senior season. Even with heavy competition in the running back room, he elected to stick to his word and come to the banks.

Additional Walk-Ons

#40 Joseph Hayford (5’8”, 200 lbs.) Junior

Long term outlook: Excellent.

Good talent with plenty of eligibility left. Running back is a position where finding at least average players is not difficult to do. The hard part is finding true gamebreakers and there’s a better than average chance one of this group can be that player. Pacheco probably has the best chance, but Young and Adams could win the starting job this year. We saw Josh Hicks and Robert Martin explode on the scene as true freshmen and Paul James never got all his carries back.

Previous positional reviews:

Special Teams