You know, it takes a special type of player to be a running back in ECU’s system. You really have to excel in the trifecta of talents: running the ball, catching the ball, and providing pass protection for your QB. In the past two seasons, the top back in the system was a smaller, shifty back with excellent vision and low center of gravity. Vintavious Cooper and Breon Allen, both 1,000 yard rushers were both adept at the three skills noted above. There is a literal stockpile of running backs in the program with superior running and pass catching talents – far greater than the Coooooop and Breon. The future feature back may be the one who shows the most talent in the other two areas of the job at ECU. But, man ole man…there is going to be a dog fight for carries next season between some heady, experienced backs and some high-potential newcomers. OFFENSE
While there is a new OC in place in Coach Dave Nichol, the running backs head honcho is still Coach Kirk Doll, a former Pirate player whose lack of BS in his demands for excellence stoke the fires of a great group of backs to battle for touches in 2015-16. What is masterful is how Doll gets the absolute most out of each carry from each back and the group seems to thrive off the competition. Perhaps the beauty of the system is that if you can master the three talent requirements, Doll will let you get your chances and if you max your opportunities, you will get more. No one thought for the world that Allen would be able to pick up where Cooper left off (after back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons), but he did and did so in sparkling fashion wreaking havoc on opposing defenses not only via his rushes, but also via the air as a receiver. The question isn’t whether the next guy will have the same success, but rather, who the next guy will be. Running Back Back drop: While passing has been the catalyst for the offense, a closer look reveals that the Pirates are pretty effective as a running team, particularly in the big play category. In the previous two backs, the Pirates had smart players who used speed and shiftiness to make things happen. If there was a concern in the running game, it was that we didn’t seem to have a back to pound the ball into the end zone when we needed it, up close and nasty. While many may feel apprehension about the position with the departure of Breon Allen, I suggest you refocus on the cadre of backs we have and understand that we may actually be getting the best of both worlds going forward.
I think we will continue to see a three back approach to the running game, which has greatly benefited the Pirates, Chris Hairston, Marquez Grayson, and Anthony Scott are all back. I still think we see another 1,000 yard rusher along with a ratcheting up in the short yardage touchdown rushing numbers, but all three of these backs will see appreciable number of totes. So, who is the odds on favorite to be that guy? The Contenders:
- Chris Hairston (RS-SR): While Marquez Grayson showed the power/speed combo and Anthony Scott showed the dazzling/playmaking shiftiness, it was the 6-0, 200 pound rising senior who had the second most rushing yards on the team in 2014. Hairston piled up 528 yards on the season. What’s more is that he did so quietly, really. You would think that Grayson or Scott would have the gaudiest numbers, but it was Hairston who averaged the best average per carry among the backs at 6.7 yards per tote. He also had the longest run from scrimmage (sans Allen) of the returning back – a 54 yard burst. The point is, he took the slow but sure path and what is sure is that Hairston has the three skills acquired. He may be the most reliable back of the group and hence, is the top candidate to be that feature-like back. The kid has earned his chance to sit atop the depth chart.
Marquez Grayson (RS-SO): He is a special talent. Excellent speed and agility in a 6-1 200 pound frame and has an extra gear when he hits the second level. He also knows how to get north-south in a hurry and has the power to break tackles. That power and speed combo is the reason why he scored a TD per 9 carries last season. Now…who knows what his academic situation is and hopefully whatever led to him having to be sat for the bowl game is something he can make up this semester and get himself squared away by summer because his talent on the field is evident in buckets. If he is on the field, he will get significant reps and his 6.1 yards per carry will come in mighty handy.
Anthony Scott (SO): From a pure talent perspective, Scott (5-9, 180) has the highest and most diverse skill set. He is very fast, very strong, very agile and his field vision and natural runner’s instincts are obvious. He was too good to keep off the field as a true freshman…which says alot given Allen, Hairston, and Grayson’s talents. Scott was asked to do it all this season from a back perspective: running for power in goal-line situatiosn, delays and draws, and zone reads and he excelled without fail on each. He has great hands and even appeared comfortable in pass-protection. He has bonafide star written all over him, though I think you see that emerge midway to late in the season in 2015-16. He has a taste of college level ball now and I expect he will ratchet up the competition come spring. He wants more than a taste now..
- Other RBs expected on the roster: Cory Hunter (SR) who has game experience, Jamal Tillman (JR), and Shawn Furlow (FR commit) from nearby South Central HS.
Early Call: I think Hairston gets the nod based on experience, overall skill set relative to the system and because he has become a leader on this team. He is unselfish and willing to put his body on the line for this team. I do think we will see Anthony Scott start to rise throughout the season. Grayson will have his big plays too. Overall, if a back hits 1,000, I am guessing Hairston. I also believe you will see a notable uptick in the rushing game this season, including from the QB position. Of very important note, there were two former high school standouts who have opted to continue their college careers by transferring to ECU. Former Havelock star Derrell Scott (a 4-star prepster) has transferred in from Tennessee and former Broughton star back Chris Mangus (a 3-star prepster) has transferred in from Virginia Tech. Both players will have to sit out the 2015-16 season before getting into the mix in 2016. [1/26: CORRECTION: Scott will have to sit out in 2015, but Mangus has already sat out the 2014 season. He should be eligible in 2015]. The stable is quite healthy going forward.
NEXT POST: You in no way, shape or form can replace a WR like Justin Hardy…because they do come around that often. That said, there is a deep and talented pool of receivers both inside and out ready to carry on the Pirates offensive charge in 2015-16. We are going to dive deep into the two groups on the next post.