A Running Debate: Will a Complete Back Emerge in ’12?

A comment the other day from a great Pirate on this blog got me thinking more about the running backs as we head into 2012.

IMO...love to hear your thoughts, too!

Two years ago, in Jon Williams and Giavanni Ruffin, we had two backs with the full skillset needed to excel in this system. They could catch, run, and pass protect and got pretty darn good at it by the end of the season. In 2011, we were thin at RB, injured, and really no one stood out as being complete and as a result, our rushing offense was near the bottom statistically. More than that, lack of a consistent attack out of the RB position, forced QB Dominique Davis to carry even more of the load under immensely more pressure then in 2010 and we all saw how that played out.

So it seems to me that the big question in camp this year for the running backs is which ones will emerge with a full skillset?

During the off-season, two things were clear. First the Pirates were trying very hard to sign a “Starter” ready running back. We went after three high profile guys and did not get one to sign. Second, we did not pursue others – though we did pick up a couple of athletes that might be converted – so our numbers in the backfield are again a little thinner than desired, made worse by the fact that Alex Owah is no longer on the roster. Still, we have at least 6 backs in camp. Back to battle it out are:

  • Reggie Bullock (SR-TR)
  • Michael Dobson (JR-RS)
  • Torrance Hunt (JR-RS)
  • Hunter Furr (JR-TR)
  • John Barnes-Smith (SO-RS)
  • Chris Hairston (FR-RS)

If you add a couple of other walk-ons plus Zico Pasut (if needed), we have 9 listed on the roster, but for purposes of this post, I am going to stick with the list above. Hairston is not at all likely to factor this spring as he is still rehabbing from a nasty injury last season, and is currently not able to work in contact situations.

No. 1 again: Bullock was the most effective back in 2011, but he got hurt. Can he regain his position?

So what does this group give us?

Riley seemed to indicate that as a group, the running backs are learning how to play in this system and only Bullock stood out as being a very good back in this system. He pointed out the areas that each back had to work on and then indicated he was very excited to see what Furr brings to the table. In listening to a recent interview with Coach Jeff Connors, he mentioned Barnes-Smith as being a guy who he is interested in seeing perform as well, so you have to think he must be a talented and physically strong guy as well (Jeff also mentioned how strong and fast Furr is). What I still am not hearing is that one or more of these guys can do all three important aspects for this offense ala Williams and Ruffin circa 2010.

But, I will share my thoughts on how I think it will shake out:

Reggie Bullock: Riley has indicated before that Bullock is a real, real good running back, and is the best natural runner among the group to see game action. A year ago, he had 18 receptions in the 6 games he played, but that may not be enough to say he is a good pass receiver out of the backfield – though it was certainly tops among backs. The concern on Bullock has to be his body size and ability to take the punishment doled out at this level of football. Now, that said, Riley was quick to characterize Bullock’s injury as a sort of a freak thing, but he missed half the year which means he is a health concern. Camp Connors probably has improved his size and physicality and will help mitigate those concerns.

Prediction: It is hard for me to see camp ending without Bullock being either clear-cut No. 1 or an “OR” No. 1. Bullock was good in all his outings sans Houston which not many players performed in that game. He had over a 100 yards in his last game before leaving with an injury (Navy). He runs angry and he runs smart and this is why I think he stays atop the depth chart.

A complete back? Dobson has worked hard in the off-season, will it show in camp?

Michael Dobson: The thing I like about Dobson is he runs straight ahead…and he doesn’t let the things he can’t control, control him. That said, it is hard to ignore the fact that Riley wants Dobson to be more explosive, meaning, Dobson’s opportunities this year come down to how much progress he made in Camp Connors and how well he can leverage new strength in the pass pro and running aspects of the game. Also, has he improved in the pass-catching game? If he has “learned how” ECU wants him to run, then he has and should have a good opportunity to compete for the job.

Prediction: As much as I pull for Dobson, I am guessing he ends up as an “OR” No. 2 or an “OR” No. 3 coming out of spring. While he definitely deserves an opportunity, he has earned that, he has not be able to demonstrate he can be everything that they desire in the starting back. That said, he is game ready and no matter we he falls on the DC, he can come in and give strong reps to the team.

Torrance Hunt: Hunt may be one of the most unselfish players on the roster and he is talented, too. He made the move to RB from WR a year ago without complaint and knowing that he would have to climb the ladder to even get a chance to play. He was raw – as Riley has pointed time and again – and really needed game reps to sort out if the move was a good one. Hunt demonstrated that he, indeed, has a good skillset for the position and progressed as one would expect with each outing a bit better than the last as he learned the position. His game against Central Florida was a coming out party, IMO, announcing that he is now officially a Pirate RB. Riley was clear that he is still young by RB standards – not program standards – and must get more consistent in catching the football and breaking arm tackles. The RB in this offense must be able to get past the first tackler. That said, he has improved and has earned a right to be in the  battle in this spring. I expect him to perform very well in the spring and push the competition to a four-back race, which it should be.

Learning to fly: Hunt has come far, fast as a RB.

Prediction: I expect Hunt to earn the clear No. 3 position or at worst be an “OR” No. 3 for a couple of reasons. First, Riley sees Hunt as a high risk, high reward guy with his speed and shiftiness and will want to get him in in certain situations to change pace or give a different feel out there, so he may be a situational back. Second, Hunt has shown that he will always be ready if needed, and your No. 3 needs to be a guy who can flip the switch to main back mentality at a moment’s notice. Hunt’s abilities to move to the top of the chart, IMO, are directly related to the health and effectiveness of the OL. He is not going to be a guy who runs over the first tackler, so their needs to be running lanes and choices. 

Hunter Furr: On paper, it is easy to see why Riley has said that he is very eager  to see what Furr brings to the table this spring. He has size, at 6-0, 225 pounds, and he purportedly runs a low 4.4 – high 4.3 40, at least according to Camp Connors reports (as noted in the above-linked radio interview) and also, he is particularly strong. The Junior Transfer from North Carolina sat out last year, per NCAA transfer requirements, and has been learning the system and partaking in Camp Connors – a program he is familiar with from his time at UNC, in preparation for this moment – spring camp. It is hard to not look at those numbers and pencil him as a viable candidate for the job, but his opportunities to-date to show what he can do have been on Scout Team and in Thursday night scrimmages, which according to Riley, Furr has shown some tremendous flashes of brilliance. Hearing Riley say that he can’t wait to coach him every day, tells me that there are big expectations for Furr.

Prediction: My guess is that, given how hard we looked for bigger, game-ready backs in the off-season, Furr is going to get a huge opportunity this spring. I am thinking he comes out of camp as a clear No. 2 or an “OR” No. 2 behind Bullock to set up a big camp battle in the Fall. It may come down to catching the football and pass protection rather than ability to run the football.

John Barnes-Smith: Barnes-Smith is a walk-on who drew special mention from Coach Connors in a recent radio interview (see above) which was interesting to hear. Connors indicated that he was eager to see how Barnes-Smith does given his strength and speed work. Does this make him a contender for a depth chart position – hard to say – but if the staff is taking note of him, I wanted to put his name here for consideration. I honestly know very little about him and LR didn’t mention him in our last conversation on players, but I have gathered that he was a good back at East Wake high school, averaging over 5.0 yards per carry and was a banger-type, physical in his style of play. He is a bit of a wildcard and will need to use the spring to become a bigger part of the conversation.

Prediction: Based on the players ahead of him, I would guess that Barnes-Smith does not end up on the DC, but will factor as a special teams focused athlete, an area we need as much talent as we can pull together to improve. There and in camp he might be able to generate enough looks to put himself in a better position for competition in 2013.

Chris Hairston: With his opportunities being very limited this spring as he works to fully heal from a serious injury early last year, Hairston doesn’t appear to factor in this year’s battle. Riley has lauded his skillset and sees a bright future for the young back, but the future is not now for him. If he can take a big step toward getting healthy by end of spring and position himself for a good share of practice reps, that will be a great step forward for him as he works toward his future competitions at the position in 2013 and beyond.

Prediction: Hairston will not likely be on the depth chart until possibly later in the season, if then at all. He will be asked to focus on learning, getting practice reps, and getting and staying healthy this season.

Conclusion: While it would be better if we had another back or two ready to practice, at least for now, we are in much better shape then we were a year ago heading into camp. We have three returning backs with significant game experience, and a transfer back with game experience all bunched up at the front of the stable. Now the question is, which of those experienced backs has the best overall skillset: Who can run, pass protect, catch the football, and knows the system best? Spring battles hopefully will answer that question for each player and the depth chart will be formed with an eye toward finishing the competition in the Fall. My guess? If there are no “ORs” listed, it would look like this: Bullock, Furr, Hunt, Dobson. That is a pretty solid group given their growth in 2011 and expectations for their off-season growth.

OK, friends, what are your thoughts? Where do you agree, where am I out of my head, what am I missing here, please sound off on this debate.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “A Running Debate: Will a Complete Back Emerge in ’12?

  1. Mike

    Great write up Ron (as always) — you’re spoiling us & we love reading every bit of it). I mostly agree w/ your assessments, a few comments:

    Reggie B. — once RB got accustomed to the speed & strength of D1, he learned how to use his speed & vision, to break the arm tackles & get past the first waive, he became a different, dangerous runner his last 2-3 games and played like a stud while hurt vs Navy. Remember, he did all this while only having fall camp to prep for the season, behind a depleted O-line and with added special teams duties (add’l of wear & tear). For all the above reasons, w/ 1 yr of Camp Connors & D1 experience, a fully healthy RB may have a ‘break out’ yr, IMO, I would not be surprised if he becomes a dominant back in CUSA (as long as he stays healthy).
    Hunter F. — I see him blocking (on pass plays) and short yardage, also used as a change of pace back, no shifty moves, but a powerful, speedy freight train and good blocker (hopefully good receiver too). I could see him in a 2 back set w/ RB, possible full back too.
    Torrance H — I see him as a “RB lite”, a lighter, slightly less powerful version of RB, w/ the breakaway speed, but he stills nds to get stronger to break those D1 arm tackles. Great potential, a true team player and nice young man.
    Michael D. — Mystery to me, last yr appeared to almost run timid, was tackled too easily, hoping he gains confidence and strength, as I’m sure he has great potential, would love to see him do well.
    Won’t comment on the others as I’ve yet to see them play. If our RBs due become specific situational role players, only hope this does not become too apparent and predictable to our opponents what plays will follow.

    With improved O-line play, more depth & experience at RB, and a QB who makes good decisions in this offense, much less gift TOs by our offense this yr, ECU has a chance to be “Special” this yr.

    Thanks Ron, keep up the great work.

    PS, predict we’ll see Shane as our starting QB, but we have good talent there in all 4, 3 of which could play this fall and do well (I hope).

    • Great analysis Mike…I know that LR is very high on Reggie and thinks along the same lines as you do. I really hope our D can be game changers this year so whichever QB starts, he can count on short fields and some back up after a mistake.

      As always, thanks for dropping by and sharing!

  2. This is a tough one for me because I personally like a ground and pound dominated offense, and here we are with the spread (that horse is out of the barn, across the bridge, and into the wild by now). Accordingly I prefer the ground/pound morphotype – bigger backs, and a short and stocky one really gets me going. But do realize blocking, picking up the man on the blitz, and getting YAC when the pigskin is tossed your way may be more of the character traits needed for our offense.

    Regardless and as Mike articulated very nicley; RB played that bruising type of running (and blocking) I love his last couple of games and especially against Navy, but we see where that got him – thigh contusions and out of commission. That’s a question mark for me. I loved Hunt’s speed and it looks like he had a good winter/spring on the track team – very sharp young man as well – his interviews are great. Love everything I’m hearing about Furr in the nexus mentioned above, and size matters – that’s my feature back to no surprise. Dobson is like the “jack of all trades/master of none” type fo back, and glad to hear he has re-committed himself after what I think even he would agree was a mildly dissappointing year for him in 2011. Above all and to whomever sees the most action in 2012 – block like your life depends on it, break that first tackle, catch the ball when asked to, and by all means hold onto the ball – turnovers at this position hurt us our first half of 2011.

    • A Pirate Good Day to you PirateR…your analysis is great and I think crystallizes a lot of what I was trying to convey in a lot less words (I know…I am working on that).

      I love RB…guy runs big and hopefully that injury is an anomaly and that Jeff has worked his magic on a willing participant. I am equally curious about Furr…but, I have to see it to believe and he is just now able to compete.

      Nail to the head on the Turnovers…several of you have underscored that point and it is so true…at IWR early in the season too…really hurt.

      Cheers

  3. RC, thanks for all the work you’re doing both here and on Bonesville – it’s real fun to wake up and read such in-depth analysis.

    Similar to you, I think the depth chart will look like:
    Bullock
    Furr
    Hunt

    …with Hunt getting on the field more in specialized situations this season. I’d really like to see more screens or reverses his way with his game-changing speed. We simply didn’t do enough of that last year and instead rammed him up the gut repeatedly into a depleted OL treating him as if he was a 220 pound back. It didn’t work and it wore him down. Don’t know if Riley didn’t think his hands were good enough, but that’s certainly something we need to take advantage of going forward (just turn on tape of USM and UH last season and they thrived on throwing the ball to their RB out of the backfield in the same type of offense).

    I think the real sleeper here is Dobson. He is solid in each phase, but just doesn’t have an attribute (speed, power, hands, etc) that stands out among the rest. If he can work on his explosiveness, like you mentioned, and keep the fumbles in check, I think he could have a breakout season.

    • Thanks Stephen…I am very much looking forward to your spring interviews over on HTC…i envy your proximity…thanks for that site, too…awesome.

      I really like Dobson – a true Pirate in every sense of the word – but as you say, he needs to put it all together. If we don’t add misdirection then we have to have bulk with speed so it sort of limits Dobson’s opportunities because he is, IMO, as PirateR mentioned, a Jack of all Trades.

      I do not dislike the Air Raid system, but sometimes I do find myself drifting back to the days of Junior Smith, Leonard Henry, Jamie Wilson, and Scott Harley…

      As always Stephen, thanks for sharing…always look forward to your thoughts.

  4. Michael Jones

    I pretty much agree with your projected depth chart. I am a big fan of Hunt and his explosiveness, but he went down on first contact pretty much every play last year. If that improves he could easily start seeing a ton more reps.

    • I think Stephen (see comment above) might be on to something in terms of how we can best use a guy like Hunt…such a good kid and love his skills. Hopefully he finds a niche that gives us the homerun shot now and then.

  5. SpreadandShred

    I noted something interesting that speaks to the lack of confidence in the catching ability of the RB’s. The shovel pass is an integral part of this offense and J Williams and G. Ruffin were involved in many of them a couples seasons ago. Last year however, not ONE shovel pass was utiilized during the season.

    • Hey S&S…thanks for dropping by and taking the time to chime in.

      Never thought of that, but you are right. I think you are on to something and again, maybe that is one of the items LR is referring to when he says the backs have to learn what this offense requires…and about not being able to run the full system.

      By year 3…we better be able to run the full system…maybe we see the shovel pass reprise itself in 2012.

      Cheers

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