Position Highlight: Rutgers Running Backs
Paul James had already rushed for 881 yards in a season, but the moment he really arrived came in the Knights' season-opening win against Washington State this year. Rutgers, in its first game in the Big Ten, came from behind with three minutes left to snatch a win and kick off the Big Ten season in style. Paul James' 173 yards were the sign that maybe, things would work beautifully with two new East Coast teams joining the old and proud Big Ten.
Rutgers' darling season would continue, but James's would not. An ACL tear against Navy ended his season prematurely, and sent Kyle Flood to his bench. Desmon Peoples had more skills than his 3.9 yards per carry average - toughness, speed, good team play - but carrying the team was not something the 5'8", 175-pound could do. Enter Phase III.
By the end of the season Peoples was back on the bench, and two freshmen were doing what Peoples or James could not. Josh Hicks and Robert Martin combined for 302 yards against North Carolina, 197 against Indiana, and 126 against Maryland. They carried the team in big moments when Gary Nova struggled, and closed the year as one of the key strengths of the team. Now, both Hicks and Martin are back, along with Peoples, along with a healthy James. The Rutgers running back battle is one of the league's most interesting outside of OSU's quarterback trio.
Kyle Flood will need every bit of it to transition his team to the program's sixth offensive coordinator in as many years. Ralph Friedgen promised to support the program in an advisory capacity, and will be back in Piscataway during spring. Still, he felt the need to retire to his South Carolina home and enjoy his family. Flood, and new OC Ben McDaniels, will be looking to replace an NFL-capable tight end, three-fifths of the starting offensive line, and Gary Nova. Rest assured, there will be a lot of new faces on offense.
The running backs, then, stand as the unofficial leaders of the offense, no matter who ultimately wins the job. The best bet for starting time is probably on the veteran James, who has the prototypical strength and explosiveness of a modern Big Ten back. But running back battles can be particularly volatile - Michigan fans just have to look at Derrick Green's struggles in the spring game to know that a few bad choices can stall an offense. If somebody else develops a good rhythm with their blockers, they'll be able to put up big numbers right away against Norfolk State and Washington State. Those early games will give the chance to catapult one of these four into the Big Ten's upper crust of running back elite.
Ohio State Spring Game Review
Yes, the Buckeyes are easy to hate. But there was something - well, something a bit odd - about the Ohio State spring game this past Saturday in Columbus. Ezekiel Elliott won Fastest Buckeye, Cardale won Longest Throw (74 yards, no less), and Buckeyes big and small participated in a pushup contest. After a first quarter touchdown, Cardale Jones attempted three two-point conversions, none of which succeeded. Then, somehow the entire touchdown was wiped off the board. A hundred thousand people showed up and packed the Horseshoe all the way up to the cheap seats. And it felt ... like college football is supposed to feel.
Urban Meyer, who has been viewed as everything between a devil and a saint, casually oversaw the practice and remarked nonchalantly afterward that the team hadn't improved. East was west, north was south, and Buckeyes were likeable.
In reality, there was some method behind the madness. Firstly, this was a celebration, a culmination of last year's struggles. Second, this was about turning the page. It was about finding deep options in the passing game (they really, really passed a lot), staying healthy, and testing particular spots. There are two defensive linemen to replace, both of whom were good pass rushers, and a new starting corner to anoint.
And there were answers to those questions. Sam Hubbard looks like a poor man's Joey Bosa - which is bad news for Ohio State's opponents, who will have a hard enough time dealing with Bosa and Adolphus Washington on the line. Gareon Conley looked stellar, and even like an upgrade, at cornerback. Cardale Jones didn't even throw his way that often.
There were some rough spots, of course - this is spring practice, after all. Tommy Schutt failed to impress, and that interior defensive line spot will be an important part of Ohio State's plans. Cardale lacked timing with his deep options, and while the receiver group looked deep and athletic, and generally impressive, there may not be someone as reliable as Devin Smith. The offensive line looked like a work in progress outside of the entrenched starters, so injuries could be a factor. These are small problems, though, for a team that always seems to find a way forward, no matter what success or failure is in its way.
The biggest takeaway? Judging by their actions, this team still has a championship mentality. They understood it was springtime. They screwed up, worked hard, learned some more, and brought passion and energy. Everyone from Schutt to the receivers to the offensive line promised they would put in the time to get more athletically capable. Everyone understood their role and tried to be the best. It looked like spring practice for a championship contender.
Hitting the Links Is B1G
Ohio State's spring game set a new record for attendance by any program.
Caution ruled the day this year, and that was evident in the offensive playcalling - a lot more passes than run plays, and plenty of deep throws to challenge the secondary in space. As this piece says, Urban Meyer uses criticism with some praise hidden somewhere inside.
I talked last week about Joshua Perry and his outstanding off-the-field service; it's only fair to highlight the accomplishments of Ezekiel Elliott as well. Elliott was awarded the James E. Sullivan Award this week, an honor that predates the Heisman Trophy and is given to a college athlete who demonstrates tremendous character and leadership.
To take this into a larger theme, I have argued that the Big Ten can compete in the modern era with the SEC while keeping its focus on academics and integrity intact. With the conference now devoting more time and money to recruiting and coaches, it's becoming increasingly apparent that this model can succeed - and in fact, might be inevitable - thanks to the student-athletes who bond and prepare and sacrifice as a team. In short, the Leaders and Best, with no distractions, arrests, or academic issues necessary.
Congratulations to Elliott. We will see the Buckeyes November 28th.
This was a great look inside Tom Herman's Houston team. The entire AAC is starting to look pretty competitive: SMU hired Chad Morris from Clemson, East Carolina spent part of last year ranked, and Memphis beat BYU and came within a touchdown of doing the same to UCLA.
Morris has provided multiple immediate turnarounds as an offensive coordinator. Now he's running the show at a historically significant program - one that hasn't climbed back since it was given the infamous death penalty in 1987 and 1988.
In The Pursuit of Happyness, there's a scene where Will Smith's character interviews for a job without a decent shirt on. He's asked what he would say if somebody walked in for an interview without a shirt and actually got hired. Will Smith's reply: "He must've had on some really nice pants."
Carter Dunaway had one catch last year for 9 yards. It was a really nice catch.
Kevin Gross has some intriguing skills at running back, and his teammate Chris Terech has some potential to bulk up and become an inside presence. Gross was a bit underrated because of an injury that wiped out much of his junior year; a lot of coaches step back from those players, but Mark Dantonio has gotten a lot of mileage out of projecting talent despite a lack of experience or film.
On a slightly unrelated note, Michigan State-Oregon will be absolute must-watch television, and I'm sure Minnesota will have some curveballs ready for TCU.
People have talked about how this is likely Christian Hackenberg's last year; with his talent and prototypical size, he's destined for the NFL.
But Hack might really benefit from a fourth year at Penn State, I think. He struggled last year under duress, and let his emotions get the better of him. Plus, for all the pretty throws he can make, there's always a number of others that he leaves out there to be picked off. Whether it's protecting the ball, developing leadership skills in tough times, or being able to read defenders and assignments faster, Hack could use some more time and practice to really hone his talent. We'll see what he does this year.
Dancel was going to get a steady amount of playing time at safety, but the return of A.J Hendy from a year-long suspension helps there. Still, this adds to a pretty rough off-season for Maryland in terms of attrition.
More savvy media from Minnesota, though I have some nits to pick about the list itself. #2, #4, and #5 are great plays; the ones below #5 are probably worth avoiding.
The scary thing is that, as good as this defense was a year ago, they can get better. Dave Aranda was a wizard with their roster, and his third year with UW's defense could be his best.
2014 was a bad luck marathon for Kevin Wilson. Nate Sudfeld fell to injury after his two backups transferred out of the program, and his star left tackle missed a big chunk of the season as well. The defense started to come into its own right about the time the offense fell through the floor, then starting corner Michael Hunter (who was pretty darn good) transferred to Oklahoma State in the off-season. Indiana doesn't have the depth to hemorrhage talent like that.
The #1 choice is predictable, and a former B1G guy.
Not bad for an off decade, but there's some work to do to improve here.