Ranking The ACC Running Backs

A few weeks ago I posted a reaction to BC Interruption's ranking of the returning ACC quarterbacks from earlier in the summer, to prove that they had missed the call on where Logan Thomas ranked. This week, I will continue what they started and take a look into the ACC running backs and where they rank entering the 2012 season.

I will however congratulate them in this instance. No need to worry A.J. Black (the writer of both posts), kudos on this one. I do not disagree with much at all of BC Interruption's running back rankings. But, I feel like bringing some more color and depth to the table can't hurt. Don't expect as much analysis as the quarterback piece, because the arguments aren't as difficult to make and really, there's not as much blowback in the "who's the better running back" conversation. On top of that, the ACC quarterbacks are far better than the conference's running backs entering the season.

So if you're interested in seeing where the running back on your team ranks, or just want to see where the Hokies' backfield stands, jump right in and get ready to be running back'd...on second thought, just jump right in.

First off, before you go ripping me for the rankings, keep in mind that I considered 1. the player/group's talent level in my opinion based off of video analysis, casual viewing of ACC games and to some degree, reinforced by recruiting rankings, 2. their relevant work/statistics and 3. what I project they will do in 2012. If you take that into consideration and still disagree, rip away in the comment section.

Additionally, in circumstances where the starter/primary back was unclear, I included multiple players in the group. I did not unfairly weigh the combination of these multiple backs, as I am aware that for most teams, only one back can be on the field at a time, therefore negating some of the value of having interchangeable or multiple backs. Also, unlike BC Interruption's post, I did not include any quarterbacks or fullbacks (I don't count Georgia Tech's running backs as traditional fullbacks), only running backs. I also included freshmen who would play a part in any team's running back race, as BC Interruption's post was published in the early summer before accurate depth charts including freshmen would have been available.

When considering my picks, if you see a different total of returning yardage for the team in my argument than was notated in bold for the group, that simply means there are more yards returning gained by players who were not in contention for significant playing time/a starting spot. I also did not include backs with less than 50 carries unless they were a candidate for serious playing time within the group. So, with that said, let's get to it!

12. Juwan Thompson- Duke (457 yards 4.2 avg. 7 TD's, 22 rec. 182 yards 1 TD)- Looking at the statistics, I know what you are probably saying: how can a guy with these statistics (compared to other teams) be last among ACC running backs? Well, I have those answers. Luckily, I highly doubt there are any Duke fans that will troll us here on this one, so I'll move quickly.

1. Thompson was Duke's STARTER (or at least primary ball-carrier) last year when he put up these numbers. He did split some time with Desmond Scott who had about half the number of carries as Thompson, but no other player even touched the ball 50 times out of the backfield.

2. From a talent standpoint, Thompson isn't bad, but he isn't a viable every-down running back either. I know Cutcliffe likes to pass (and that is a very kind understatement), but it would stand to reason that if Duke had an every-down back and failed to use him they would be, well...not befitting of the intelligence level associated with the university. It is kind of a chicken or the egg quandary though. Duke struggled to run the ball and get good quality running backs before Cutcliffe took over. So they pass to some degree out of necessity.

3. These rankings are also based on what I project these individuals/groups will do in 2012, and while Thompson may improve upon his 2011 statistics, I don't see a breakout year. There just aren't enough touches for him, and even if there were, again, I don't think he's an every-down back that can carry that load for this team successfully.

11. Justus Pickett/Brandon Ross/Wes Brown- Maryland (274 yards 3.7 avg. 1 TD, 10 rec. 49 yards 1 TD)- As A.J. pointed out in his rankings, Maryland lost Davin Meggett from a year ago (856 yards 5.2 avg. 4 TD's) . But not only did they lose Meggett, they only return a total of 280 rushing yards to this year's team (not including the 574 yards and 5 TD's of run-happy quarterback C.J. Brown who is projected to miss the season with a torn ACL).

The strange development is that although Pickett is the only player with any real experience at the position, he is apparently losing the battle currently to redshirt-freshmen and former two-star recruit Brandon Ross. Don't even get me started on the inaccuracy of recruiting rankings and how players can outperform (or fail to live up to) their rankings. It's just puzzling considering not many figured he would come out as the winner of the race against Pickett and touted freshman and former Virginia Tech target, four-star true freshman Wes Brown.

For the time being though, the Terrapins running game is likely to struggle this year. Without any kind of experience at the quarterback position (the top-2 are both freshmen) as well, it's going to be tough to see this unit any higher than No. 11.

10. Michael Holmes/J.C. Coleman/Tony Gregory/Martin Scales- Virginia Tech (27 yards 1.7 avg. 0 TD's)- The Hokies return only 57 yards and no TD's from a year ago (remember, not including quarterbacks or fullbacks on this list. I only mentioned C.J. Brown's total above to explain that those stats weren't missing, they just weren't included), including 30 from a running back who, for now, sits no higher than sixth on the depth chart. But, unlike Maryland, the Hokies have a wealth of options and appear to be considering redshirting stud back Trey Edmunds (despite the fact that he will now dress with the team) simply because the backfield is too crowded.

Coleman, a four-star recruit who enrolled in January, oozes talent. He's a diminutive, shifty outside-the-tackle runner who will impress with his blazing speed and quick cuts. He is in the mix to get plenty of carries, and could potentially overtake Holmes sometime later this season, but it's still Holmes' job to lose.

Holmes is a former three-star recruit who had a prolific high school career (not Darren Evans prolific, but then again, who was?) and has impressed the coaches both this year and last because of his no frills north and south running style. Holmes may be the right guy because of Tech's pedigree of being able to run the ball on the inside. Both he and Scales (a converted fullback) will handle the interior duties while Coleman and Gregory (who had 102 yards in 2010) will take to the outside, although Holmes has enough speed to break it to the outside if needed.

So there is plenty of talent it Tech's running back corps, but not much field experience, at least not when it comes to actually running the ball. I think in time that Tech will be fine, just as BC Interruption and some of those who commented on the story felt, and finish in the top-half or better of running back production alone. The only reason I'm giving the Hokies the nod over Maryland is from an overall talent and depth standpoint and the only reason I'm giving the Hokies the nod over Duke is that these running backs will produce, whether individually or as a group. One thing we know about Frank Beamer teams is that they will have a productive running game. So if for some reason I'm proven wrong on this one, fault history, not me.

9. Mike James- Miami (275 yards 3.8 avg. 7 TD's, 9 rec. 80 yards 1 TD)- After several years of backing up Lamar Miller, Damien Berry and Graig Cooper, it finally appears that Mike James will get an opportunity to be the feature back for the Hurricanes. The former four-star recruit reminds me of David Wilson in a lot of ways. His speed, shiftiness and acceleration appear comparable, although James is nowhere near as gifted at breaking tackles. He is a more downfield runner than Wilson is.

There are two key questions about James, however. 1. Will the Miami offense/Stephen Morris be good enough to take pressure off of him? and 2. With the way that Miami has divvied up the carries between their running backs over the last couple of years (and the way they cycle in four-star running backs), there's no guarantee that James will get the carries he needs to establish himself. For now, he's just another former highly ranked recruit with tons of potential Miami player, and unless he adds to his skills (i.e. staying upright after first contact), I don't know that he deserves to be any higher on this list.

8. Josh Harris- Wake Forest (432 yards 4.3 avg. 3 TD, 5 rec. 22 yards)- I know this will surprise a lot of readers, but Harris is the best individual running back ranked below No. 3 on this list. I think he'll be a feature back and will flirt with 1,000 yards for the Demon Deacons if he can stay healthy.

A bold prediction? Perhaps. But watching Harris in 2010, I saw flashes of brilliance that showed me he had what it takes. Harris rushed for 126 times 764 yards and 7 TD's while splitting time in 2010, earning honorable mention Freshman All-American honors. Last year that total dropped to 453 yards and 3 TD's while Harris nursed a hamstring injury that hampered him for most of the season.

With the emergence of Tanner Price as a legitimate, talented passing threat, Harris should benefit. I would be very surprised to see him far from the top of this list a year from now. But my prediction could be all for naught if he doesn't stay healthy or fails to put the raw talent that he oozes together.

7. James Washington/Mustafa Greene/Tony Creecy- N.C. State (1,279 yards 3.9 avg. 8 TD's, 67 rec. 472 yards 3 TD's)- N.C. State has an abundance of talented running backs that also contribute in the passing game. BC Interruption's rankings suggested that 2010 feature back Mustafa Greene would be the starter this season, but I don't think it's that cut and dry. Greene did have 597 yards and 4 TD's in 2010 and added 272 yards and 2 TD's in the passing game, but he missed the entire 2011 season with a foot injury, opening the door for James Washington, Tony Creecy and Curtis Underwood Jr., and they didn't disappoint.

The statistics you see above are Washington's and Creecy's 2011 totals combined. Pretty impressive for a duo that had a combined 92 carries coming into the season (all Washington). So as this article suggests, there is going to be a rotation, just what kind of rotation is yet to be decided.

These totals also do not include Curtis Underwood Jr. who has been hampered by a knee injury that required surgery earlier this month. Last year underwood rushed for 254 yards and a touchdown, and also recorded 5 receptions for 43 yards a touchdown receiving. He has already used his redshirt year, so should he return, it is unclear what his role would be with three seasoned backs ahead of him.

At any rate, the Wolfpack have several very good all-around backs that work well in their system at their disposal this year. I almost gave this group the nod over Florida State's group, but from a talent standpoint, the 'Noles backs have more potential...something that Florida State always has and yet fails to deliver on (ahem). So I am already regretting this decision to a degree.

6. Davonta Freeman/Chris Thompson/James Wilder Jr.- Florida State (822 yards 4.5 avg. 10 TD's, 20 rec. 142 yards)- I went back and forth on this one as you saw above. Aside from the lack of production, injuries and off the field issues are also a concern, as Chris Thompson experienced a back injury last season and James Wilder Jr. was arrested. But if they can master the by-committee nature of this backfield, each has proven to be competent-to-good if not spectacular.

To complicate news on the injury front and to subtract from their depth in case of injury or re-injury, highly-rated recruit and fourth-string running back Mario Pender is also set to miss the season with an injury to his groin. Pender was being looked at as a possibility in the backfield.

A big key to how Florida State finishes this season will be their ability to run the ball consistently, something they have struggled to do over the last few years.

5. Rolandan Finch/Andre Williams/Tahj Kimble- Boston College (1,378 yards 4.3 avg. 8 TD's, 21 rec. 176 yards 1 TD)- BC Interruption is probably pretty glad I thought they had this tabbed right. BC's running back threesome surprised many in 2011, especially after Montel Harris' re-injury. They helped the Eagles to get back to their identity that had won them games over the last few years and alleviated some of the pressures on Chase Rettig. They helped to take a team that was moribund at the beginning of the season and transform it into a team that competed with every team it played down the stretch.

Per this post, our friends at BC Interruption think that Finch will emerge as the main back, but I think the Eagles will still use the other two rather frequently. Each brings something unique to the table. While I don't know that the Eagles have found their signature back in this group, the group should be in the top half in the ACC.

4. David Sims/Orwin Smith- Georgia Tech (1,310 yards 6.9 avg. 18 TD's, 16 rec. 335 yards 2 TD's)- Don't let the statistics fool you here. One of the reason's these two backs have eye-popping statistics is that their team runs on almost every play. That doesn't take away from their accomplishments, but it does present the need to quantify those statistics. Without that, it would be like awarding Texas Tech (under Mike Leach mind you) the best quarterback and wide receivers in the Big 12 because of their statistics. They are system guys, just like these Georgia Tech backs are system guys. They benefit from the system they play in. So objectively, don't stack up with the three guys/units above them.

Although I'm certain running the ball on virtually every play will ensure that many guys will get a significant amount of carries for the Yellow Jackets, for fear of contracting carpel tunnel, I'll stick with the guidelines I set forth at the beginning of the post.

3. Perry Jones/Kevin Parks/Clifton Richardson- Virginia (1,990 yards 4.9 avg. 16 TD's, 60 rec. 594 yards 5 TD's)- If not for the duplicitous nature of UVA's backfield, I would have ranked them ahead of Andre Ellington. However, as I mentioned at the top of the post, I will not give an advantage to a group of backs over a single back on the basis of statistics. So UVA will stay at No. 3.

Here's where I struggled on my decision. The Cavaliers do like to get two backs out there at the same time, but again, that doesn't really mean much if both of them aren't touching the ball. Additionally, the Cavs really involve their backs in the passing game (either by design or necessity), so there's that. Looking at their numbers in 2011, the group was very productive in the passing game. They rival N.C. State as the best all-around group of backs in the conference.

The snag that prevents them from moving higher is that individually, no one of their backs is better than Andre Ellington...yet. Clifton Richardson might have a chance, but as a true sophomore, he has yet to prove it. I think Richardson can have a breakout year (if there are enough touches to go around), but right now, the group doesn't measure up to Andre Ellington on an individual basis.

2. Andre Ellington- Clemson (1,178 yards 5.3 avg. 11 TD's, 22 rec. 109 yards)- This is probably a snub in these in some peoples minds (...Clemson fans), but I'm ready to back it up. Ellington isn't the back those stats suggest. Ellington is an all-or-nothing speed and cutting back that relies on big holes up the middle, double pulling guards leading him on sweeps to the outside and distraction techniques from those around him (i.e. running him as the wildcat QB with Sammy Watkins coming around the edge). He doesn't make yardage for himself the way that some backs do.

Yes, Ellington put up those numbers in 2011, but he certainly benefitted from having a wealth of skill position talent around him to keep the defense occupied. I'm not going to say what he did was easy, but it was made easier. I think Ellington will put up another season like the one he just had, but really no better. There are still too many skilled players in that offense for him to get the bulk of the touches.

Ellington will have to work behind a completely revamped line in 2012 that is introducing three starters and one who is changing positions. In addition to that, Ellington will no longer be spelled by talented backup Mike Bellamy, who was ruled academically ineligible and has transferred. That leaves very little depth and experience behind Ellington. So it's pretty much all Ellington here; a guy that I feel has maxed out his talent and in a good year of ACC running backs, I would rank in the middle of the conference. This, however, is not a good year.

1. Giovani Bernard- North Carolina (1,253 5.2 avg. 13 TD's, 45 rec. 362 yards 1 TD)- Bernard is a water-bug running back in that his agility makes him hard to tackle. Defenders have to be almost right on top of him to be commit to a tackle and be sure that he can't escape. If I had to bet who would lead the ACC in broken tackles this year, it would be this guy. He's the class of the conference at his position this year and it's not even close. He is also the ACC's most complete back. The Hokies dodged a bullet when Bernard was injured fairly early on during last year's 24-21 victory over UNC.

Bernard, or Gio as they call him, started at UNC as a redshirt-freshman a year ago. That's right, the guy who put up those numbers above has three seasons of eligibility remaining. Scary, huh? In fact, Bernard might've been in the mix at running back in 2010 considering their NCAA plight and subsequent suspensions if not for a torn ACL early in camp.

Breaking down some of his film, Bernard is one of the best running backs I've ever seen with what I like to call the jab-step cut (think basketball). It's a move that's rarely used in football, not because it's not effective or it's not practical, but that few have the physical talent and quick feet to pull it off. This is what helps to give him superior cutback ability. Once a defender has him dead to rights, he plants his feet the direction opposite of where he wants to go with a quick jump cut, only to slide his feet seemingly right out from under his body as he starts to accelerate the opposite way when the defender commits. He is also capable of performing this move multiple times in quick succession, giving off the appearance that he is bouncing back and forth. He's patient, sometimes to the point of being indecisive, which ends in him getting stood straight up by multiple defenders flocking to the ball.

Bernard is also unafraid to put his head down and stiff arm guys left and right. He's listed at 5'10" 205, but appears to be much smaller than that. He has a "runs bigger than he is" feel to him. He doesn't possess breakaway speed. Instead, his speed is just adequate enough to get into the hole, make his shifty moves and get out. He is also a superb pass catcher, although most of the catches I saw from him were sneak out into the flats, turn around and be a safety valve. That doesn't mean those catches shouldn't count, but it doesn't give me any kind of indication of what kind of routes he runs.

With the departure of Ryan Houston, whose power was the perfect complement to Bernard's shifty moves, A.J. Blue is the only back with any meaningful experience. He saw spot duty at times last year, including against the Hokies. Blue was a dual-threat quarterback recruit before making the switch to running back at UNC.

This will be the final non-Georgia Tech/2012 season related post this week (provided there is no breaking news to the contrary). So no worries, we'll have that covered. Just sit back, relax and make sure to read Gobbler Country for all your updates/primers for the Georgia Tech game and the 2012 Virginia Tech season.

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