It was stated as soon as Duke Johnson declared for the NFL Draft, there was no replacing him. It's always tough replacing greatness, but it's even more of conundrum when the guy Miami has to replace is the all-time leading rusher in school history. You know the backs that Miami has put into the league, and that trend of churning out NFL-quality running backs doesn't look like it's going to go away any time soon.
Miami's running backs played well this year, but did not fulfill their full potential. To their credit, running backs Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton are just a sophomore and freshman, respectively. Sophomore Trayone Gray never recevied any true burn last season despite being heralded by his teammates and fans alike. Junior-to-be Gus Edwards was lost for the year with a foot injury before the season started, so the Canes became rather thin at the running back.
Look! Another 1,000 yard rusher!!! True sophomore Joe Yearby barely eclipsed the milestone in the final game of the season against Washington State. Yearby added about 20 pounds of muscle this season with the expectation of being the starting running back while still maintaining his speed and elite quickness. While Yearby is one of the more quicker backs in the country, Miami sorely missed the elite speed that Duke Johnson possessed and displayed throughout his collegiate career. One thing Yearby did well was make people miss, especially in the open field. He seldom lost yardage (on plays the offensive line actually blocked) and always seemed to be falling forward on his way to the ground. Yearby gave the Canes what they were looking for as a starting running back. Grade: B+
The other back that received the majority of playing time was true freshman Mark Walton. The highly sought-after recruit from Booker T. Washington High School in Miami came in probably looking to compete for the third-string, MAYBE fourth-string if the previous head coach with the tie actually let Trayone Gray play, but due to the apparent ineffectiveness of Gray and the foot injury that sidelined junior-to-be Gus Edwards for the season, Walton was jolted up the depth chart and secured the second-string role. While Walton showed flashes, especially early in the season, he was inconsistent and didn't quite rack up the yardage he is certainly capable of attaining. While his nine rushing touchdowns led the team, he did so on a clip of only 3.5 yards per carry. While there may have been higher expectations for the team's No. 2 back, Walton handled himself very well for a rather undersized freshman. Grade: B
Unfortunately, there isn't too much to say about Trayone Gray, considering he rarely got significant playing time under the former head coach with the tie. At 6'2" 220 pounds with great speed, one would hope Gray gets carries in the new regime of Mark Richt.
Now, there were numerous factors that reflected some of the running backs' performances this season: play-calling, Kaaya's second season, and the absolutely horrendous/porous/awful/pathetic play from the offensive line.
With play-calling, it was no secret that former offensive coordinator James Coley made a couple questionable decisions while in control of the play-calling duties. While he is not fully to blame, there was plenty of blame available to be put on him.
In Brad Kaaya's second season at the starting quarterback, it was his offense to operate. When push came to shove, put it in his hands and watch him go to work. Part of the reason why the running back's numbers were down so drastically this season was due to Kaaya being the unquestioned leader of the team. With his skill set and weapons at his disposal, it was encouraged that Kaaya threw the football approximately 25-35 times a game.
Now for the main reason the rushing numbers were abysmal at times, the offensive line was ATROCIOUS. On top of Kaaya getting absolutely destroyed by two-man rushes, the Yearby and Walton rarely had enough running room to get to the second level and make plays. Too often did the offensive line miss assignments and whiff on blocks, not allowing the backs to get much going past the line of scrimmage. Poor play like this throws off a back's timing and doesn't allow them to establish a rhythm in the game.
The 2015 season wasn't one of the ages for the Canes. With inconsistent play and subpar blocking up front, Miami was rather pedestrian and ineffective when it came to the ground game. Running off-tackle seemed like the best option for getting yards, but Miami constantly tried to pound the middle of the field to no avail. The 2015 running backs ran for 797 fewer yards than the 2014 running backs and, albeit the 2014 team had All-World Duke Johnson. In 2015, the Canes only averaged 3.7 yards per carry compared to an average of 5.3 ypc in 2014.
While the 2015 season wasn't one to forget, it is one that Miami can certainly build on. In 2016, Miami returns every rusher from the chart provided above and will add potential starter Gus Edwards and incoming freshman Travis Homer. Kaaya and Richt will have a full backfield at their disposal to help bring back the explosive offense that used to exist. With National Signing Day coming in a week and spring ball on the horizon, Miami has plenty of work to do in terms of the ground game. Dare I say, this team has the *gulps* potential to be dangerous in the running game, but only time will tell. Expect the 2016 numbers to be awfully similar to the 2014 season. Georgia's running game was always forefront in Richt's tenure, and there should be more of the same during his time at Miami. Edwards, Yearby and Walton could/should each eclipse 700+ yards next season.