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An Underrated Problem: Backup Running Back

Coming into this season, there seems to be two primary problems that preseason magazines are focusing on: interior line play and linebackers. This makes sense, of course, as we lost all 6 starters in those two positions. However, there are more than just two potential holes on this team. This week, we'll be documenting all of these "mini-issues", if you will, starting off today with backup running back.

Why It's a (Potential) Problem

Football goes through evolutions. Progressions. It's newest progression en vogue, the spread offense, has a couple of specifications. Smaller offensive linemen. Countless wideouts scattered across the field. Heavy use of the shotgun. And, more often than not, a pair of running backs to share the load. One of the central components of the spread is to get as many receivers into a position to catch the ball as possible. Limit the amount of blockers, and send everybody out on a pattern. This leads to a lot more running tiring the running backs out quicker, etcetera etcetera. This leads to a need to have at least two bodies to shuffle in and out, to keep people fresh.

When our running game has had its most success under Offensive Coordinator Ed Warriner, it has featured two runningbacks. Sure, in 2007 Brandon McAnderson received the lion's share of carries, just as Jake Sharp should receive this season. But in 2007, Sharp was always there to give B-Mac the breaks he needed. Last year, we went back-and-forth between Sharp, Jocques Crawford and Angus Quigley. They all had their moments, particularly Quigley and Sharp, but no one really ever emerged as "the" running back until late in the season, when Jake did. But with Crawford leaving school and Quigley switching to linebacker, there is no clear-cut backup to Sharp.

This is a problem. Particularly given the aforementioned interior offensive line problems, it'd be nice to have a standard duo of runningbacks to provide some yards. We know what Sharp can provide; yards in mini-spurts, but not a whole lot of big play ability. Ideally, we'd match him up with a homerun hitter or a real masher up the middle (one extreme or the other), but anyone who can provide consistent production would be better than nothing.

If not, we're in the same boat as last year. As good as our passing attack is, it's tough to consistently win games with a one-dimensional offense. With two running backs, it would take the ease off of Jake Sharp, the rest of our offense. Even our defense.

The Potential Solutions

Here are the people who could save us from such a potential problem. Obviously, Jake Sharp won't be included; he's already a given in this exercise as the primary share holder of carries in this year's backfield. Of course, this could change, but I don't see that happening.

Rell Lewis (rsSoph.)

Rell is my personal favorite to take over the reserve role. Reports said he looked fantastic in the Spring Game, which is nice. He came to Lawrence a wideout, but switched to RB around the same time that we had a RB exodus last season, when Carmon Boyd-Anderson and Donte Bean transferred away and we became woefully short on bodies. He's about the same size as Sharp, but 11 pounds thicker. Similar running style, although I would imagine he could run between the tackles a little more effectively.

He played QB in High School, so it's tough to get too much off of his Rivals tapes. Still, 30 seconds through this video (free to watch Rivals subscriber or not), there is a clip of him taking a QB draw through a lot of traffic. He looks good. Earlier on in the video, he outruns the entire defense to the edge. Obviously, it's largely irrelevant, particularly considering he's packed on 20-odd pounds since then under Dawson's weight program, but it's the best we've got.


Also looking at his offer sheet, Air Force offered him a schollie. They run a triple option, so I'd imagine they thought of him as a slotback in the system, fast enough to run around to the outside past defenders. This is assuredly looking too far into events that don't tell you much at the time, much less 20-odd pounds and 3 years later, but it's all we have. We're sticking with it.

In conclusion, he's still my favorite to win the job. Of course, that has every bit as much to do with the dearth of just about anyone else with experience in the program, but hey. It all counts the same in the end. He doesn't match up perfectly with Jake, with his style appearing to mimic Jake's; able to pick up yards both inside and out, without a real ability to break off long runs or consistently pound it up the middle. But, if he's the second-best (or, hey, maybe even best) runningback out there, he should play.

Other options are looked at after the break.

Toben Opurum (Fresh.)

Really, this guy probably has the most talent of all of the options, even including Jake. He was a 4-STAR recruit according to Rivals, and was offered a schollie from ol' Coach Front Butt over at Notre Dame (and Nebraska and Texas Tech and even Florida). For some of those teams, like Notre Dame and Nebraska. he likely would have played fullback, but if Florida and Tech thought he was good enough to be a running back in a spread system, it's plenty good enough for me. And he did play in a spread system in high school, so he has experience in the general concepts of it.

Plus, he's big enough, at 6'2" 235, to provide a substantial change-of-pace to Sharp. Because of the similar size and B-Mac's immense success in his time in Lawrence, he's drawn plenty of comparions to McAnderson, and that would be tantastic. As a freshman, though, that might be a little much to ask.

Watching this video at MaxPreps, though, definitely reminds you of B-Mac though. Sneaky quickness (and really, Opurum is probably quicker), but more importantly he runs through the middle with a purpose. It's tough to measure against high schoolers, but he appears to be a better athlete than McAnderson, running more frequently to the outside as well as being a fantastic receiver out of the backfield - I remember hearing sometime during his senior season that he had more catches than carries, or something like that.

he should definitely be a factor in any discussion, and will probably find himself getting consistent carries at some point in the season. He has everything you'd want in a spread running back, particularly as a complement to a smaller back like Sharp - it's just a matter of how quickly he adjusts to the college game.

Deshaun Sands (Fresh.)

This isn't likely. Although he probably does fit the profile of a homerun hitter, being able to break off huge runs with ease, everything I've heard/read says he probably isn't ready to contribute right away. Our RB corps is quite thin, so he might not get the redshirt year he probably should, but hopefully he does. Tuxedo Tony's son has all the makings of a special partner to Opurum in the coming years, but it will probably take a year-or-two before then.

Tyler Hunt (rsFresh.)

To be honest, I've never heard of Tyler Hunt before scanning the roster for any other running backs. And, he isn't technically a running back, officially listed as a fullback. The only fullback. But given our complete lack of using a fullback, I'd figure he is really just a running back. Just a huge one.

But, don't immediately look him over. I mean, he is from Lawrence High School. And he's big for a running back. That's about the only two comparisons between him and B-Mac, but it's enough to get me excited. Okay, not really. But it's fun to talk about. And hey, with how few possibilities are out there, and the staff likely wanting to redshirt Sands, Hunt just may find himself in the game with an injury or two.

So, The Solution Is...

Like I said, I'm buying Rell Lewis. At least at the onset of the season. As the season progresses, though, I'd imagine Toben Opurum's role in the offense to continue to expand. He has a bright future ahead of him. But, I'm a big Rell Lewis fan, just because I love players getting chances to play. This is almost assuredly going to be his biggest chance in his career, though, so make it happen Rell. If not, you may be stuck on special teams units the rest of your career. 

And, while he wasn't included, I suppose Jocques Crawford should be counted in the race as well. If he sticks around, he will probably be the second RB. However, I'd put the chances of him sticking around at something like 5%, so it isn't looking likely. Maybe not even that high.

In the end, I think the running game will turn out fine. It will probably go through some rough patches, particularly early on in the season, but everything should be worked out in time for the meat of the schedule. It better be, at least.