Our depth chart previews continue with a close look at the running backs, who look to be set up for success in the coming years.
The Hoos finished last year ranked 121st in rushing offense. They averaged just 113 yards per game. That included just 38 yards rushing against Richmond in the opener. As a team, the Hoos averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.
But I’d argue that the running backs weren’t Virginia’s problem. As I noted in the OL preview, when the Hoos handed the ball off to the RBs, they were generally successful. Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell led the team with 187 carries and averaged 5 yards per carry. Albert Reid was second with 98 carries, and he averaged 4.9 yards per carry. And though Jordan Ellis didn’t get enough touches, he averaged a respectable 4.4 yards per carry on his 14 carries.
Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but they’re respectable. Dalvin Cook averaged well over 6 yards per carry. But both Smoke and Reid were ahead of Clemson’s Wayne Gallman and right behind Pitt’s James Conner, both of whom were 3rd round NFL picks.
The problem with UVA’s running game in 2016 was that the Hoos did not run the ball very often. Virginia finished eighth-worst in the country with only 384 rushing attempts. The Hoos actually did a worse than that -- sacks in college football count as rushes, and the Hoos were tied for 17th in the country in most sacks allowed.
So it’s clear that the Hoos didn’t run the ball enough. Of course, when you go 2-10 and lose six games by double digits, sometimes it is hard to find chances to run the ball more.
Both Smoke and Reid are gone (Reid is still around as a graduate assistant), so Virginia must find running backs to replace the nearly 1500 rushing yards that the duo generated. I already looked at how UVA will try to replace Smoke’s receiving contributions in the WR preview.
Ellis looks like the most likely candidate to become the featured back. He’s a junior who has played sparingly in two years following a redshirt. He’s totaled 38 carries for 135 yards and 3 TDs. But he’s a one-cut, downhill runner who can run between the tackles or hit the edge off-tackle. He isn’t going to juke or dance around defenders, but he also isn’t going to go down to an arm tackle.
Let’s take a look at the Hoos roster at RB:
RB: Daniel Hamm (Sr), Jordan Ellis (Jr), Chris Sharp (So), Justin Zollar (So, walk-on), Lamont Atkins (Fr), PK Kier (Fr)
FB: Alec Shifflett (Sr, walk-on), Jabari Peacock (Fr), Andrew Yavinksy (Fr, walk-on)
Sharp, you may recall, was a DB last year. He was initially recruited by the Hoos as a RB and moved back there this spring. Hamm was the primary PR last year, and finished 20th in the nation with almost 10 yards per return. In 2015, Hamm had 57 carries and 14 receptions, but last year he touched the ball just 3 times on offense. He seems likely to retain his role on PR, but I don’t know how much run he’ll get in the backfield.
The Hoos include two types of running backs on the depth chart, a “speed” back (SB) and a “big” back (BB). It should come as no surprise that Smoke was listed as the SB and Reid the BB in 2016.
The Hoos did not include a FB on the depth chart, but then-senior Connor Wingo-Reeves was listed as the backup to Reid at BB for every game last year. The Hoos didn’t use a lot of 2-back sets, though there were occasions when Smoke was lined up in the slot with Reid in the backfield.
Here is my projected depth chart.
2017 Projected Running Backs Depth Chart
Ellis could easily be slotted at SB or BB. He was listed as the backup to Smoke at SB last year. But he’s also bigger than Reid was at BB. Regardless, the Hoos will still mostly use single-back sets and Ellis is the primary candidate to line up in the backfield next to QB Kurt Benkert.
I think Sharp may be the mostly physical gifted of the RBs, but bouncing back and forth between RB and DB has hurt his development. He’ll get some chances, and he’s got decent receiving skills, which means he may get some 3rd down looks. This is also where Hamm may shine, considering he had 14 receptions in 2015 (12.4 ypc).
The only scholarship player listed at FB is Peacock, but he’s not a traditional FB. If the Hoos intend to use him like one, he’s going to need some seasoning. But at 230 pounds, he’s a different RB to anybody else on the roster. He’s a beast and could be very useful in short yardage because he’s basically impossible for the first defender to bring down. Both Peacock and fellow freshman Lamont Atkins enrolled in the summer, giving them a leg up on their classmates. Atkins is very talented, but he too similar to Ellis to make it worth burning his shirt for what would likely only be a few carries.
Another freshman, PK Kier, has put on almost 30 pounds since he committed. This leads me to believe he’s being groomed as a BB complement to Peacock. The Hoos were Kier’s only FBS offer (though Penn State was looking), so that may be his best route to seeing the field, considering the talent in front of him.
With just one upperclassman on the roster, the RB situation is going to look very similar for the next couple of years. Ellis leaves after 2018, just in time for the younger guys to really be ready. Atkins, Peacock and PK Kier should be leading the depth chart by then.
Of course, expect Bronco and company to keep recruiting RBs every year. The staff would love to pull in a big-time back. Ronnie Walker, a 2018 recruit from Hopewell, Virginia, is somebody the staff is very high on. He brings an element of speed and elusiveness that would be a boost to the RBs.