Spring Outlook, Running Backs

CHICAGO IL - JANUARY 23: Running back James Starks #44 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after his four-yard second quarter touchdown run against the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23 2011 in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Its been two years since James Starks helped Buffalo march to a MAC Championship. Since his season ending injury in august of 2009 the Bulls have never found one guy to carry the load the same way Starks did. During the 2009 season the Bulls managed success on the ground using a committee approach but two of the key backs in that rotation are now gone (Nduka, Thermilus).

Last season was, hopefully, a low point. The Bulls could never find anything even close to a running game. As a team they finished 101st in division one football with just over one hundred yards per game and 3.09 yard sper carry. Whats really scary is that the Quarterbacks accounted for a decent percentage of that work.

What was supposed to be a rich field of running backs collapsed under the weight of an ineffective line and a complete lack of ball handling. It was not until week five that the Bulls managed to get a rushing touchdown. The only rushing touchdown by a running back that UB would manage in Coach Quinn's inaugural season.

Because last seasons utter futility on the ground the field for halfback is probably the most wide open battle on the offensive side of the ball. The only thing shedding light on this race is the fact that last seasons seniors were used sparingly by Coach Quinn.

Brandon Thermilus got knocked out early in the season and Ike Nduka, despite putting up decent numbers (in comparison to the other backs), was relegated to spot duty.

What jumps out when you look at the running backs last season? The back who got the most work, Brandon Oliver, had the lowest yards per carry on the team. Despite receiving a much bigger chunk of the work the young guns managed just 3.4 yards per carry and no touchdowns.

Buffalo Running Futility by game 2010

R.I Bay UCF Uconn BGSU NIU TEM MOH OU BSU EMU ARK   Per Carry
Branden Oliver 20 71 53 29 33 17 24 18 27 6 0 0 298 2.92
Jeffvon Gill 0 57 45 0 52 45 16 24 6 5 1 22 273 4.27
Ike Nduka 7 0 0 0 47 16 0 0 32 18 29 86 235 3.51
Brandon Thermilus 27 7 12 29 31 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 106 3.93
Total 54 135 110 58 163 78 40 42 65 29 30 108 912 3.51
Returning Backs 20 128 98 29 85 62 40 42 33 11 1 22 571 3.44
Opp Ground Def 25* 79 8 51 112 24 47 25 20 87 118 72 -

 

* FCS Ranking

In addition to the returning backs this spring will feature James Potts, UB's main prize from the 09-10 class. Potts missed last seasons camp, he had to work through the summer to pay off his tuition at American Heritage High School. Because of The late arrival at UB Potts spent last season in a redshit.

Returning Running Backs:

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via a1.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net

Jeffvon Gill:

Gill Burst onto the scene in 2009 when Ike Nduka was hampered by injury. Against Ohio, in his first career start, he rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. On the season Gill rushed for 252 yards on 40 carries (6.3 Yards Per Carry).

Most fans were hoping that kind of production would carry into 2010. Gill was expected to be part of a one two punch along with Nduka. The hope was that a presentable running game would take some of the pressure off young wide receivers and help the QB ease into the job.

Instead last season Gill was the only Back who managed a respectable yards per carry but never really became a fixture in Coach Quinns offense. Like all of the returning backs he never managed to find the end zone and had his share of issues holding onto the ball.

Gill is the only returning back that can stand on an entire seasons work. Be it 2009 or 2010 Gill has shown some punch. He has a great Build (6-1, 212) and good speed.

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via blogs.buffalonews.com

Branden Oliver:

Oliver is that 'scat back' which every team needs. Despite his size Oliver managed to get better in pass protection as the season went on but as a ball carrier he never really produced.

Change of pace backs work when you have a line that can keep up with the pace and Oliver who is all of 5-7 and 190 pound just never could work behind a line that was wholly ineffective.

Despite his slow start as a pass blocker and a running game that peaked in week two Oliver seemed to remain Coach Quinns go-to guy throughout the season. He racked up 50% more carries than any other back.

Oliver may be the answer if the Bulls offensive line improves this season. He has shown real potential as a receiver out of the backfield which might make playing someone of his stature worth giving up the power that our other backs possess. In the limited work he got in the passing game he racked up almost 20 yards per reception with a long of just 34 (consistently over 15 yards).

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via a5.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net

James Potts:

Potts was the prize target by Coach Barret during his final season at UB. He was the recipient of more offers  than you can count on both hands and quite a few of those were big caliber BCS schools (Michigan State, Rutgers, Cincinnati).

There was some worry that he might get poached after the departure of Coach Gill. Many schools pressed and Potts took a few January visits but he stuck it out with UB.

He missed last summers camp but he did arrive on campus in time to start classes and get a full year of practice in as a Red Shirt.

He's not incredibly big but he is tall enough that, with a little bulk, he will have sufficient mass to be a feature back. Had over 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground in his final two seasons at Heritage. In pads, he has been clocked at 10.87 in the 100 meters, making him one of the faster players on the team.

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via www.buffalobulls.com

Josh Fuller:

Fuller is a walk on who saw the field twice in 2009. He was sidelined by a shoulder injury last season. Fuller really doesn't jump out as a guy who will be in the mix for this seasons depth chart, his numbers from the Nike Combine back in 2008 don't scream starter.

At 5-8 / 168 he does not posses the all out speed you want from a scat back, even a change of pace back. But his shuttle work was pretty respectable (4.49).

With three backs ahead of him on the depth chart, giving Potts the nod, and two more incoming freshman it's doubtful Fuller will still be in the backfield by the time summer rolls around but with his shoulder healed up he will probably find his way back onto the special teams unit.

While all eyes might be on the quarterback battle this is the one that may have the biggest impact on the 2011 season. No matter how good your receivers might be you simply can't run an offense without credible running threat. The Bulls don't need any of these guys to fill the role once occupied by James Stark's all they need is a guy that you can count on for four yards a carry 15 or so times a game.

If whoever comes out of Spring as "the guy" manages the four and a half yards per carry with a few touchdowns it will take a ton of pressure off the Quarterbacks. If the line improves and the running game stays as moribund as is was in 2010 then there are some serious personnel / coaching issues to address.

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