Wednesday, July 25, 2007

BC by the Positions - RB

Summer is kind of a dead time for college football fans. Sure, the guys are working out, but most programs (particularly those run by guys with NFL backgrounds) are secretive enough that it's tough to know what's going on aside from a media snippet here and there. So with an eye towards next season, I will break down the team BC will be bringing into the year, position by position. I will look at guys who figure to start this year, guys who figure to provide depth this year, young players on our roster who we will look to in the future, and our recruiting situation at that position. While much of this will not be new info to BC fans, I hope to analyze the situations (with a particular eye towards position battles) and give my take on things. It will also help educate opposing fans who may not know much about our team.

After looking at our quarterback situation last week, I will continue with an update on BC's running backs.

The Starters: After splitting time with Andre Callender and A.J. Brooks during their freshman seasons in 2004, L.V. Whitworth emerged as the primary running back for Tom O'Brien and Dana Bible over the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Whitworth has been, statistically speaking, a fairly consistent back during his tenure at BC. He has amassed 2221 yards rushing on 506 carries (a 4.39 ypc average), including 174 carries for 791 yards (4.55 ypc) last season. Whitworth has been criticized by many as a slow, plodding back who does not have the quickness, speed, or God-given talent to play the halfback position effectively at the ACC level. I count myself as a former member of this camp. However, after viewing his performance in the spring game, I lay the blame for his troubles at the feet of Tom O'Brien, Dana Bible, and former strength and conditioning coach Todd Rice.

O'Brien and Bible have taken considerable heat for Whitworth's situation from many corners. Whitworth is, fundamentally, a between-the-tackles runner. BC's previous coaching staff, however, seemed to be under the impression that he is a shifty, elusive back in the Brian Westbrook mold. He was forced to run sweep plays against speedy ACC defenses. He was forced to run dive plays with no lead blocker. He was thrown screen passes on third and long situations. These things happened time and time again, and O'Brien and Bible never EVER learned from their mistakes. The new coaching staff, however, actually seemed to know how to use him effectively in the spring game. Put him in the I formation, let him pound it between the tackles with a lead blocker, and Whitworth can be an effective part of the BC offense. While his numbers in the spring game were unimpressive (29 yards on 13 carries), anyone who watched the game saw a far more dangerous-looking Whitworth than we have seen maybe since his redshirt freshman year. It should also be noted that he is excellent in blitz pickup (as is Callender).

Much of the credit for Whitworth's improvement has to go to new strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo, who as an assistant at Auburn worked with such star RBs as Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. Former S&C coach Todd Rice (who now holds the position at NC State) favored a program based heavily on yoga and stretching, with far less emphasis put on traditional weight training and conditioning programs than is common among elite football programs. You saw the consequences of this in NFL draftnik reports saying that BC players looked soft, that they could stand to put on some muscle; and you saw it on the field with guys like Whitworth. Loscalzo, by all accounts, has much more of an old-school approach. Numerous players have reported that practices and workouts are far more physically taxing under the new regime than the old (I'm sure Tom O'Brien, if asked about this, will blame it on heat stress caused by global warming), and one of the prime beneficiaries seems to have been Whitworth. He seems to have dropped about 10-15 pounds, and is noticeably quicker and faster. Despite the weight loss, he also seems to have a more solid base and is harder to bring down. He is far from a lock to retain his starting position, but the BC fans who completely wrote him off upon the new coaching staff's arrival (and I will be first to admit that I was guilty of this) were mistaken to do so.

But the fan favorite for many BC guys is still Callender. He is arguably the best all-around back on BC's roster, possessing good speed, agility, and decent power. After racking up 633 yards and 3 TDs on 146 carries last year, for an average of 4.3 ypc, Callender put in a decent performance in the spring game, racking up 67 yards on 18 carries. Not horrible, but certainly not spectacular; although as with any of the running back performances in this year's spring game (particularly Brooks and Smith, who spent most of the game running with the second team), we should keep in mind that the offensive line was pretty banged up, missing one starter, one borderline starter, and one important reserve. It's also important to keep in mind that these guys might not face another rush defense all season as stingy as BC's own. In addition to being the superior athlete, Callender, for my money, has surer hands than Whitworth--both carrying and catching the football--and while I like Whitworth better in short-yardage situations, Callender is more of a home run threat. AC has also benefitted from the new S&C program, although he hasn't seen the complete 180 kind of results that Whitworth seems to have. As he possesses the best combination of athleticism and experience on BC's roster, the smart money is likely on Callender to get the starting nod against Wake Forest on September 1.

But then we come to perhaps the biggest enigma of the last few years at BC, Brooks. Ever since his breakout performance against those same Deamon Deacons as a true freshman 3 years ago, I have maintained that Brooks is the most talented runner on BC's roster, even more so than Callender. Inexplicably, he found himself in Tom O'Brien's doghouse after that Wake game, and has barely seen the field since for BC, redshirting in 2005 and getting the ball just 19 times for 66 yards and 1 TD last season (mainly in garbage time running behind an understrength offensive line). As of the end of spring ball, the junior from Florida appeared to still be third on the depth chart, but there is really no reason that he can't move up come training camp.

Every time I see him play, I feel that Brooks is BC's best pure rusher; however, I will be the first to admit that where he falls short are in the other areas required of a running back, primarily pass blocking. His blitz recognition and pickup abilities, as of last season, fell far short of those possessed by both Whitworth and Callender (he did not really get a chance in the spring game to show if he has improved in this area). Some view him as a fumbling risk, although I never felt that he had any more propensity to cough up the ball than any of BC's other backs; this, I feel, is primarily a coaching issue (and one that will be resolved under the tutelage of new RB coach Ben Sirmans). There is little question that Brooks is more athletic than both Callender and Whitworth; the question is, can he put together the little things that make a great back?? He has the talent to be our starting back against Wake Forest, but he needs to spend the summer camped out in the film room working on reading opposing defenses and in the weight room improving his power base for blocking. If he does so, he still has two years and the physical potential to become the next great Boston College running back.

Finally, you've got Jeff Smith. Smith, probably the fastest player on BC's roster, has already established himself as one of the premier kick returners in the ACC but will look to contribute this season on offense as well. I actually ran into Smith at a hockey game back in February and asked him if he was going to be seeing some time on offense this year; he just said something along the lines of "Yeah, it's gonna be fun" but his body language said it all--his face absolutely lit up. Based on the spring game, I don't believe that he is ready to be an every-down RB at the ACC level. He obviously has incredible speed, but it's important to keep in mind that other than some limited garbage-time action he really has no experience at the position (he was a QB in high school). As I've mentioned earlier, he's still a little impatient with his reads. He needs to slow down a bit and let blocks develop; several times in the spring game, he would simply take off at full speed upon getting the handoff and crash straight into the line for no gain. He also received criticism for his fumble in the spring game, but I'm not too worried about this; even the best backs are going to fumble the ball from time to time, and as long as it doesn't become a chronic issue it's just something that you have to live with. It's worth pointing out that Smith is another player who will benefit from Loscalzo's S&C program, as he'll have the opportunity to bulk up a bit and be able to withstand the rigors of the RB position. I do think that the new offensive system will do a good job making use of Smith's talents, however. I expect to see him get a decent number of snaps in each game, and I think we'll see him used in a variety of ways; lined up in the backfield, split out wide, and so forth. Even as a decoy, the mere fact of his being on the field forces the defense to respect his speed, and in turn this will open things up for other players. I think he's still a year away from becoming one of our key offensive weapons, but I also think he's ready to contribute this year. His progress will be one of the fun things to watch this season.

At the fullback position, the starter will be redshirt freshman James McCluskey, a converted linebacker. Despite being a speedier and more mobile FB than a Mark Palmer or Greg Toal-type guy, don't downplay McCluskey's blocking abilities. The kid is a former LB, after all, and that means he loves to hit. He was one of the pleasant surprises of the spring game in my mind, as he definitely did not look like a freshman out there. He can block, he can catch, and my bet is that if called upon to do so, he can run as well. He also seems to be picking up the new offense very quickly (probably not a huge surprise, as he's new to the offensive side of the ball altogether and unlike the more experienced guys won't have to unlearn any old habits).

The Depth: For the halfbacks, see above. We have four scholarship halfbacks on our roster, and I fully expect all 4 to see significant time on offense this season. While one will be the nominal starter, there's no practical reason to differentiate between starters and backups here.

On the other hand, there is some question as to who the backup FB will be, and even how much the new offense will use a fullback. The I formation was used quite a bit in the spring game, particularly on first downs, and folks who observed spring practice have reported that the coaches were stressing it there as well. The problem is that if McCluskey gets hurt, we don't have many other options at the position. True freshman Brad Newman has the build for it, but is after all a true freshman, and his offer list does leave some question as to his ability to contribute significantly at the ACC level. The other option would be to convert a player from another position, either Whitworth or senior tight end Ryan Thompson. Thompson would be my personal preference, as he is an athletic player and a stellar blocker, but not a good catcher of the ball. I also believe that we have three superior tight ends in Ryan Purvis, Jon Loyte, and Jordon McMichael. Thompson seems to fit, especially with the potential that we will be going to more of an H-back system with our fullbacks; my only worry with him is that while he is a superb blocker on the line, at 6'4", his center of gravity might be high enough to limit his effectiveness at blocking in space.

The Future: The future of BC's running back position needs no introduction. In perhaps the biggest recruiting coup in the school's history, highly touted Maryland native Josh Haden gave his verbal commitment to BC last month. Haden intends to graduate from high school in December and enroll in BC in January, which is great news for two reasons. First, it strengthens his commitment to BC and will shield him from much of the late scramble to steal other schools' recruits that has become commonplace in recent years. This is particularly important because the other finalist for Haden's services was Florida, and Urban Meyer is notorious for nabbing other schools' verbal commits in the week or two before signing day. Obviously, he's not going to be able to do that here if Haden is already attending classes at the Heights. Second, he will have the chance to participate in spring ball, get himself in an ACC-caliber conditioning program, learn the offense, and be ready to contribute significantly in his first fall on campus. Look for Haden to see serious playing time in 2008, and almost certainly start by no later than his sophomore year.

But with all the hype surrounding Haden, don't forget about another very good RB committed to BC, Everett's Isaac Johnson. Johnson's verbal was symbolic in many ways. First, he was the first recruit of Jags' first full class at BC. Second, he is the first player in over a decade who will come to BC from Everett, despite the fact that the Tide are perennially one of Massachusetts' top high school programs. While the reason for this is unclear, rumor is that there was bad blood between Tom O'Brien and the Everett program. Needless to say, this is an important pipeline for us to re-establish. Johnson, rated as a 3-star recruit and Massachusetts' top player by Rivals, will likely redshirt his freshman year but will be an important contributor in years to come. A team can never have too many good running backs, and I expect Johnson to have a very solid career at BC.

And sure enough, BC is not done at the position on the recruiting trail. The staff is still targeting several top RB recruits, although whether they will stay at the position remains to be seen. Connecticut's Mike Cox is reportedly a BC lean, but wants to see if Michigan will offer. If he does end up coming to BC, it is likely that either he or Johnson (more likely Cox) will make the move to defensive back. BC is also in the mix for a trio of bigger backs. Mikel LeShoure of Champaign, IL and Latavius Murray, an upstate New Yorker who has drawn comparisons to JoLonn Dunbar, both have serious interest in BC (indications are that we are possibly leading for Murray). A longer shot is Brandon Beachum, a 4-star recruit from Youngstown, OH rated the 5th RB in the country by Rivals but who is also drawing significant interest on the defensive side of the ball. BC doesn't seem to have much chance here but you never know until the end. Although I generally like the direction the offense is going in with quicker, shiftier backs, at the end of the day it's still nice to have a guy who can pound it across the line on 4th and inches. My hope is that we will get both LeShoure and Murray, and only transfer one of them (Murray seems to be the better fit) to the defensive side of the ball. Either way, I think it is important for us to pick up a more bruising RB this year, even if he is a lightly-touted 2-star type guy. Jordan Todman is another Massachusetts guy who is receiving interest from BC as well as Maryland, but likely a D1AA prospect at the end of the day.

As far as fullbacks go, I don't think we'll end up taking one in this class. Cambridge's Nico Papas is viewed by some as a guy that BC might take a flier on, but he doesn't seem like an ACC-caliber player to me, although I've been known to be wrong. With two freshman FBs already on the roster, I don't see the need to take a player here unless he's an absolute stud, and none of the guys we're looking at at the position really fit that bill. There is some question as to which position New Jersey verbal Christian Klein will play at BC; although initial reports are that he will be playing defensive end, I still think there's an outside chance he winds up at fullback, particularly if we were to have an emergency crisis at that position.


At 1:56 PM, Blogger Goon said...

the question you sent me are up.

At 12:05 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

that was a great writeup... keep up the good work with the position analysis

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Alex F. said...

Thanks. I'm trying to get them up more regularly, but I'm also trying to be really thorough which means they take a while. Should have WRs/TEs up by the end of the weekend, and I'll definitely get through the whole team by the start of the season

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