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2020 Rutgers Football Position Review: Running Backs

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Three high ceiling ball carriers return to the banks.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Rutgers at Penn State
Adams was effective at times even when he just ran straight ahead at full speed.
Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team’s spring activities have been cancelled just like all other NCAA spring athletic events. With the hope that fall football happens, even if it is delayed or there’s a limited summer training camp, we will proceed with our traditional spring position reviews. With the current worldwide global health crisis, we are living day to day, but hopefully both Rutgers Football and the world at large have brighter days ahead.

This series reviews the state of each positional group based on the best information we have today. In the absence of spring practice, naturally less intelligence is available than it has been in previous campaigns. Also, with the new transfer portal, eligibility questions are best guess and we won’t assume anyone who has already entered the transfer portal will return. The team’s official website does not currently have a 2020 roster posted.

We continue on the offensive side of the ball with the Running Backs.

Position coach: Augie Hoffmann

Key players lost: Raheem Blackshear (transfer - Virginia Tech), Elijah Barnwell (transfer - Maine)

Key players returning: Isaih Pacheco (Jr.), Aaron Young (So.), Kay’Ron Adams (So.), Aslan Pugh

Newcomers: Kyle Monangai (signed LOI)

What they did well in 2018: Get yards after contact.

Isaih Pacheco (729 yards, 7 TD), Aaron Young (153 yards), and Kay’Ron Adams (161 yards, 1 TD) all often were hit behind the line of scrimmage. It’s probably not that much of a stretch to think that half of those yards came after the first defender got a hand on them. The problem was that too often that first engagement with the opposition came in the backfield. When Rutgers switched to a read-option with quarterback Johnny Langan for the second half of the season, it didn’t help matters as defenders charged into the backfield with even more vigor.

If you watched the New York Jets last year with superstar Le’Veon Bell having highlight reel runs that may have only went for 3 yards, it was the same for Pacheco at RU. I’m not sure what the official statistic is, but I do remember Josh Hicks being among the leaders during his earlier days on the banks and Pacheco did as much if not more with less of an offensive line. Adams took the approach, whether it was coaching or not, to just run full speed and hope a hole opened up for him, rather than using any patience or vision until very late in the season.

Needs Improvement: Explosive plays.

This group delivered as many big plays as any on the entire roster in 2019, but they do need more. Making more defenders miss would be a huge boon for an offense that needs all the help it can get. Pacheco has excellent speed, especially for his size, but he is not able to accelerate quite the same in all situations to run away from people after a stiff arm or juke. When he does (i.e. Michigan and Northwestern in 2018, UMass and Liberty in 2019), it usually means a touchdown. I’m not sure if the new coaching staff can teach this skill, but maybe Isaih can add some Robert Martin-like cutbacks to his toolbox.

One area that the running backs could add another dimension is with more prowess as pass catchers. Often they were asked to stay in and help block, but primarily Aaron Young got plenty of looks as a slot back who was effectively a slot receiver in motion on most plays as the departed Raheem Blackshear did before he stopped participating in games. Aaron (15 catches, 113 yards) looked like a natural receiver to the point that he could crack the two-deep even if he was not a running back with his smooth route running and good hands. Pacheco added 13 receptions for just 83 yards so he could use a boost to improve his NFL draft stock. Adams only hauled in two passes, though he did go for 47 yards combined.

Changes expected in 2020

Augie Hoffmann enters as the new position coach. Yes, he was an offensive lineman at Boston College, but I didn’t mind the hire nor do I think this will be a problem. Head Coach Greg Schiano needs as many smart guys as he can find on the staff and position specifics are less important. Hoffmann was successful at St. Joseph’s (Montvale) and can add some insight about how the offensive line is blocking to the running backs’ mindset.

New Offensive Coordinator Sean Gleeson’s offense as mentioned in the tight end and fullback review is unclear. If we look at last year in Oklahoma State, he leaned heavily on star running back Chuba Hubbard, a well rounded back who tallied over 2,000 rushing yards to lead the nation. The Cowboys’ backup running back only carried 40 times for 238 yards on the year, so it’s possible that Pacheco could end up a true bell cow back. On the flip side, for Gleeson’s 2018 Princeton offense, the top two running backs each rushed for almost identical yardage totals (675 and 663) with a quarterback leading the team in rushing.

Way too early predictions

I trust that Gleeson will figure out the best way to deploy his personnel which means Pacheco does not take the load Hubbard did, but is a three down back when rested. Adams serves as the primary backup and Young gets most of his carries on jet sweeps or other misdirection. So more or less a similar rotation to the later half of 2019, although Elijah Barnwell has transferred and is no longer available for depth. True freshman Kyle Monangai will be the 4th scholarship running back on the roster. Sometimes at running back you get a surprise like Paul James, but none of the three walk-ons looks to have done enough to earn more than emergency duty at this point: Aslan Pugh, Parker Day, or Joseph Hayford.

With no quarterback on the roster with trusted accuracy, the screen game will be more out of desperation than a true weapon early on. In short yardage without a road grading offensive line, Pacheco will have to do his best to power through defenders. If he is very banged up perhaps we see his old high school teammate Nihym Anderson (a linebacker) get a look to try and fall forward like Brian Toal did with Boston College over a decade ago.

Long-term outlook

Average. The running back position at the NFL level may be the most replaceable of any on the field outside of special teams. In college, it is more of a premium position but sees a lot of injuries and turnover, partially because so many true freshman can play right away. As a result, much like cornerback, rarely will the long-term outlook needle trend too far in either direction. Rutgers appears to be in very good position right now in 2020, though 2021 could be more of an adventure. Because of the aforementioned injury risk if Pacheco has an awesome season, he should test the NFL draft waters as virtually every back does after his junior season. Whether he ends up leaving or not, Rutgers still needs to add one or two running backs in the 2021 recruiting class to build depth. In the 2020 class, Kyle Monangai enters the fold, but he is more of a scatback or slot back than bell cow. He could end up as a rotational speed guy that get some carries, but they need more. Blueshirt Jessie Parson III will be eligible in 2021 also, but projects as a similar type guy. At least Adams and Young were the two top recruits in the 2019 class which should buy time to add to the room.

Previously covered groups

Special Teams

Linebackers

Defensive Line

Defensive backs

Tight Ends / Fullbacks