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2015 Virginia Football Previews: The Running Backs

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With no incumbent starter, and many similar players at RB, the Hoos are likely to use a committee approach at the position this year. There are a number of candidates for playing time, and several different roles for guys to fit into.

Smoke Mizzell leads the Hoos returning RBs, but looks to be part of a committee approach.
Smoke Mizzell leads the Hoos returning RBs, but looks to be part of a committee approach.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the overall poor production of the Hoos offensively in the Mike London era, the team has generally had good production from its RBs. The chart below is a copy of a chart that ran in yesterday's QB preview.

Year

Pass Attempts

Rush Attempts

Record

2010

443

417

4-8

2011 (13 games)

443

491

8-5

2012

474

415

4-8

2013

506

484

2-10

2014

432

443

5-7

1990

284

519

8-4

2002 (13 games)

448

473

9-5

2005 (13 games)

363

442

7-5

(Note: stats courtesy virginiasports.com and sports-reference.com.)

As we noted yesterday, the most successful seasons the Hoos have had, whether the coach was George Welsh, Al Groh or Mike London, have come when the Hoos ran the ball more than they threw it. In 2011, the Hoos last winning season, the duo of Perry Jones and Kevin Parks (just a freshman) combined for 336 carries and 1624 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry. In 2012 and 2014, the Hoos were barely over 4.

In 2013, Kevin Parks rushed for over 1000 yards, running for just over 4.5 yards per carry. And yet the Hoos were just 2-10. This is because QB David Watford was terrible. The Hoos had a QB who was terrible, and a RB who was having the best RB season for a Wahoo in a decade. And somebody thought it would be a good idea to have Watford throw more passes in a single season than any Wahoo QB in history. Ladies and Gentlemen, Steve Fairchild. Sadly, I don't know that there is much to learn from 2013. Everything is an aberration because of the poor play of Watford. The presence of Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko on the OL probably helped. Maybe the threat of Watford running with the ball was enough to open up holes for Kevin Parks. For all of Watford's weaknesses, he is very fast. He just wasn't able to consistently turn that speed into playmaking ability.

For the first time since 2010, the Hoos do not have an incumbent RB on the roster. In 2010, Keith Payne returned from an absence to lead the team in rushing attempts, with sophomore Perry Jones not far behind him. The next two years were the Perry Jones show, along with Parks. And then Parks basically had the gig for 2 years. This year, Parks is gone. As is Khalek Shepherd, the team's 2nd leading rusher for the past 2 years.

So who is the starter? The top candidates are junior TaQuan Mizzell and sophomore Daniel Hamm, along with Maryland transfer Albert Reid. Mizzell, with the moniker "Smoke" is well known by UVA fans. He was one of the top recruits in the nation. Rivals ranked him #29 overall, ESPN ranked him 75th. He's fast, he's quick, and he can make defenders look bad (see video below). He's also on the small side. In 2 years, he's rushed for 464 yards on 109 carries (4.3 ypc) and he's caught 68 passes for 435 yards (6.4 ypc). He's also returned 30 kickoffs for 555 yards (25.2 ypr). None of those numbers are what you'd expect for such a highly touted recruit. As any Virginia fan will tell you, where there's Smoke, there's an underachieving RB. But he's bulked up a little bit, and word is he's focused on getting downhill as quickly as possible, rather than dancing around trying to find the big play. This is a tough skill for young RBs to learn. A guy like Mizzell, who was dominant in HS, was used to being able to run by everybody on the defense, and has to learn to take a 3 yard run, rather than try for a 30 yard run that probably isn't there.

Without a doubt, Smoke will get a lot of touches. He has great hands, and was 2nd on the team with 39 catches last year and figures to play a big role in the passing game again. But, even if his new downhill running style clicks, he's not really an ideal every down back. He's more of a scat-back, and can be very good in that role.

Coming out of spring practice, Mizzell was listed first on the depth, but Daniel Hamm was listed 2nd as an "OR" with Smoke. Hamm, you may recall, came out of nowhere to rush for 137 yards on 21 carries against VMI in 2013.

For his career, he's rushed 40 times for 216 yards. More than half of his yards came in that one game. Last year, Hamm played mostly special teams, rushing 17 times for 75 yards total. All of those carries came in 2 games. Hamm isn't any bigger than Smoke. He's not nearly as shifty as Smoke. But he might be faster. Hamm originally came to Virginia to run track, and walked on to the football team (he is now on a football scholarship). This video below shows a full profile on Hamm, mostly about his performance in the aforementioned VMI game. That performance came largely in garbage time against an overmatched opponent. So don't put too much stock into that performance. Still, Hamm has shown good instincts to get downfield. And he does not go down easily.

The wild-card in the RB picture is Reid. Reid played in 28 games for Maryland, starting 4 times. He rushed for 447 yards on 122 carries (3.7 ypc). Not great numbers, but his playing time was sporadic. Reid is also a bit small, although he's thicker than either Smoke or Hamm. He's quick, with good top end speed. Like Hamm, he doesn't have the elusiveness that Smoke has, but he may be faster.

So the problem is that the Hoos have 3 RBs, all of whom are on the small side, and all of whom are bigger threats on the perimeter than in between the tackles. This poses a problem for a team that has given lip service to being a power rushing team.

Enter Jordan Ellis. Ellis is a redshirt freshman. He's not going to start. But at 5'11" and 220 lbs, he's a much different back than the other 3 guys. Ellis isn't a true "bruiser", like Keith Payne was for the Hoos in 2010. But he is a bigger back, and he's a between the tackles runner. He'll get some touches, and as the season goes on, he may get more and more looks, depending on the success of the other guys.

Behind Ellis are 2 incoming freshmen RBs, Christopher Sharp and Olamide Zaccheaus. Neither of them are likely to play this year, as both need to develop their body. Zaccheaus is a bit like Mizzell, with "make-you-miss" skills, but isn't a true every-down back. Sharp is a more intriguing prospect, as

I haven't mentioned LaChaston Smith. There is a reason for that. He's become an afterthought on this team. He played as a true freshman, picking up 10 carries for 44 yards in garbage time against VMI in 2013, in his only action of the season. Last year, he saw action late in 2 blowout wins. He started his career as a LB, but moved to RB just before his freshman season. He's a better prospect as a LB, but apparently preferred RB. He's not in the team's long term plans at RB.

Full Backs

Let's not forget about the FB position. Though the Hoos started just one game last year with a FB on the field (Louisville), Connor Wingo-Reeves was a bit part of the rushing game. The junior has played in every game during his 2 years on grounds. He's become a very good blocker, especially in short yardage situations. Connor isn't the type of FB who gets to catch a lot of passes, largely because he's not often in the game for passing situations. He did manage 3 catches for 25 yards this past season. The Hoos figure to use a lot of 3 WR sets again this year, so don't expect Connor to improve those stats by much. He has a thankless job, but he's good at it.

Vincent Croce is behind Wingo-Reeves on the FB depth chart. He has had limited action at FB over the past few years, but has seen a lot of playing time on special teams. Barring an injury to Wingo-Reeves, that will not change. Croce has been a bit of a disappointment after being a highly regarded DL prospect out of Good Counsel HS in Olney, MD.

It is likely that we'll see a "running back by committee" approach for the Hoos this year. In case you're wondering, this is a good thing. Sure, it'd be nice if the Hoos had a Thomas Jones type who could rush for 1800 yards on his own. But those guys are rare. The Hoos have a plethora of RB talent, any of whom could have a big game at any given time. Hopefully, the coaching staff will do a good job of riding the hot hand.

Jordan Ellis will likely get a majority of the short-yardage runs, although Hamm has also shown some ability in short yardage. Smoke will get a majority of the 3rd down snaps, due to his pass catching prowess. Beyond that, it is really anybody's guess who gets a majority of the snaps. The best bet seems to be Daniel Hamm, whose combination of running style, experience and speed most matches what Steve Fairchild and Mike London want to do.