While we’re still over two months away from the season, it does indeed seem to be that time of year — when college football blogs like this one and so many others start churning out season preview materials. We’ll be holding off till July and August for the team-by-team season previews, but in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at each position on the field and evaluating ACC squads’ respective strengths and weaknesses.
This week, we’re on to the running backs (you can check out last week’s feature on quarterbacks, too). Though there’s not a whole lot of experience at the position — just one returning back (Syracuse’s Jerome Smith) rushed for 1,000 yards last year — this group makes up for a lot of that in potential. Many of the most talented runners this year will be sophomores or juniors, so that aforementioned experience will come with time. As for those who are seniors, many possess a significant leg-up, which you’ll find reflected here as well.
Keep in mind that these are full unit rankings — not just one player — so just because one individual quarterback is better than another, it doesn’t necessarily mean the team’s entire crop of passers is. Still, disagree with any of these picks? Share your own selections below.
ACC Positional Rankings 2013: Running Backs
1. Florida State Seminoles: Injuries ravaged the Florida State backfield in 2012. But because of that, the team’s top two returning rushers, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., actually have quite a bit of experience under their respective belts (221 carries between them last year). They’re both vertical runners for the most part, doing most of their work in the middle of the line, but Wilder, in particular, also has some pass-catching ability out of the backfield (19 catches for 136 yards and two scores last year). Expect that role to expand this year, while also incorporating Mario Pender, who’s the quickest back on the roster and anxious to contribute after red-shirting last season.
2. Miami Hurricanes: Miami’s ranking here is purely on the strength of sophomore Duke Johnson, and his success is likely to decide how far the ‘Canes go this season. Despite splitting carries with Mike James last year, Johnson still ran for 947 yards and 10 scores, while tacking on another 1,133 yards from receiving and kick returns. With that on his resume in just one season, he’s now being listed among the most dynamic players in the country and will be the focal point of every gameplan against Miami. He won’t be acting alone in the backfield, but there’s no telling what to expect from backups Dallas Crawford or Eduardo Clements either.
3. Syracuse Orange: SU’s offense was largely seen as a pass-first attack in 2012, but its success in the season’s second half was heavily reliant on the running game. The Orange bring back everybody this year, and arguably have one of the deepest backfields in the country. The group will be guided by Jerome Smith (1,171 yards last year), but this will be a multi-back, run-first system. Expect Prince-Tyson Gulley to approach the 200-carry mark as well, while the team gets additional contributions from short-yardage specialist Adonis Ameen-Moore and jack-of-all-trades Ashton Broyld in hybrid WR/RB slot role.
4. North Carolina Tar Heels: I’ll probably hammer this message home throughout the season previews this offseason, but: UNC’s running game will be fine without Giovani Bernard. This year’s starter, A.J. Blue, rushed for over 400 yards and scored nine touchdowns on just 82 carries. Backup Romar Morris has showed himself off as a real threat to break long runs, averaging 5.6 yards per carry last season. Between those two alone, this team is set to pick up right where the Heels left off, with Morris even filling Bernard’s role in the passing game rather nicely as well.
5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: You might say that running back’s the most important position in the Tech offense, and lucky for the Yellow Jackets, they’ve got a stable of capable runners this year. Other than Orwin Smith, they bring back everyone this year, creating both heated position battles, as well as opportunities for a more varied rushing attack. Lightning-quick Robert Godhigh should lead the A-backs, but backup QB Justin Thomas (another blazer) could also see carries. At B-back, there’s even more depth, with David Sims and Zach Laskey (over 1,300 yards between them) grabbing the majority of the carries.
6. Louisville Cardinals: The Cardinals will need an effective running game if they hope to meet this year’s high expectations, which is where Senorise Perry comes in. In just nine full games last year, he racked up 705 rushing yards and 11 scores, and you can easily witness the drop-off in Louisville’s offense without him (scored 20 or less in two of the four contests). Behind him is Corvin Lamb, a back who’s most effective with more carries, and can function as a change-of-pace as a bruiser in the middle.
7. Clemson Tigers: The Tigers need just two things from their running backs: catch the ball out of the backfield and be reliable in short-yardage situations. Anything else is gravy, yet they’ve found more backs that cover the “gravy” part of the equation than anything else. Andre Ellington was a fairly traditional rusher last year, and Roderick McDowell, D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks all seem to fill a similar role. With so much speed and versatility between the three of them though, it’s likely one will fill a niche catching passes (my money’s on Brooks). McDowell should carry most of the load though, as he has the most experience up to this point and proved himself well in spurts last year.
8. Virginia Cavaliers: With the quarterback position currently up in the air, the running backs become even more crucial for the Hoos this season. And yet, that may be a position in flux as well. Kevin Parks returns and should lead the entire offense, but beyond him, anything goes at halfback. Clifton Richardson is transferring out of the program, which leaves a dearth of experience after Parks. Khalek Shepherd will get himself more carries, but he’s built in a similar (smaller) mold to Parks. The team can grab at some additional speed with freshman Taquan Mizzell, however, they may rely on the fullback position if they’re looking for a between-the-tackles runner.
9. NC State Wolfpack: State’s another team dealing with some quarterback questions, so the running backs are front-and-center in the early going. Last year’s group was pretty unimpressive (just 111 yards per game), but there’s hope those same players can come back with a new resolve under Dave Doeren’s more balanced attack. After some impressive stretches in 2012, sophomore Shadrach Thornton will shoulder the load, spelled by Tony Creecy, however neither is necessarily a “home run” back.
10. Virginia Tech Hokies: Running back was a bit of a problem area for the Hokies last season, and it already looks like it will be again after Michael Holmes‘s offseason brush with the law. J.C. Coleman is likely to improve from last season, but it’s uncertain if he can be a feature back. Keep an eye out on this position battle throughout the summer, as Coleman (and maybe Holmes) competes with Tony Gregory and Trey Edmunds (more size than the others, though zero experience) for carries.
11. Maryland Terrapins: Maryland’s backfield may actually be more effective than expected, as having a true quarterback in place will help take some of the pressure on the young rushers. While there’s no clear-cut favorite, Wes Brown and Brandon Ross should both challenge for the starting job, and could potentially settle into a two-back system. With their differing styles (Brown’s a head-down runner, while Ross has breakaway speed), it just might work.
12. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: If Wake is truly incorporating some spread-option elements, this position becomes even more important, and more troublesome. Josh Harris is seen as a serviceable back, but health issues have prevented him from realizing his potential as a true breakout rusher. As a senior, this is his last shot at proving he can keep this offense afloat when the passing game struggles. If not, he’ll have some help from Deandre Martin, who can at least assist on short yardage situations. This group has the talent. Now they just need the health (theirs and the O-line’s) to succeed.
13. Boston College Eagles: BC’s running game was a mess last year (just 90.5 yards per game), in part because of a pass-first offense the team did not have the personnel to run. But with Andre Williams returning, perhaps there’s a chance for a resurgence under Steve Addazio’s new run-first mandate. Though Deuce Finch is gone from the team, both David Dudeck and Tajh Kimble could build upon their cameo roles from last season and assist with a change in philosophy. With Williams being the only real speed back they’ve got, however, the burden will still very likely fall on him.
14. Duke Blue Devils: Duke’s running game made some strides last year, even if it wasn’t evident on paper. And now it’s time to put that progress to use. Both Jela Duncan and Josh Snead averaged five yards per carry in 2012, and the hope is that with a more balanced offense (now that David Cutcliffe trusts them a bit more), they could both flourish. Beyond those two as primary backs, Juwan Thompson‘s experience (20 starts in his career) can lend a hand off the bench, as could Brandon Connette‘s own rushing prowess, if he’s not moonlighting as a backup quarterback.
15. Pittsburgh Panthers: Just 12 months ago, I was raving about Pitt’s running back situation as one of the best in the nation. Now, well things have crumbled in a hurry. With Ray Graham graduating and Rushel Shell off to UCLA, there’s suddenly minimal experience to be found in the Panthers backfield. Isaac Bennett has seen playing time, and will likely enter the fall as the starter, but beyond him, it’s mostly just Malcolm Crockett. This isn’t to say things can’t get sorted out, and that Bennett will fail (quite the contrary). I’m just wary about this position as a focal point for Pitt’s offense.