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.
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.
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.
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.
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.