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2016 Miami Football Position Preview: Running Backs

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One of the most interesting battles of the off season will be among the running backs. State of the U takes a closer look.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Spring ball is here, and with a new staff and offensive system, it’s not completely known what the Miami offense will look like in the fall.  However, if history is any indication, the Hurricane ground game – and its stable of young and talented running backs – is about to be put on display in the new Mark Richt regime. 

Just take a peek at any given year of Georgia’s offense under Richt.  There were plenty of carries to go around, with the number of pass attempts being anywhere close to rushing attempts only in 2009 and 2013. 

Georgia has been a pro-style offense that puts three fingers in the dirt and wears teams down.  And it’s something we’ve seen in the not-too-terribly-distant past.  When Miami has been at its best, it’s been when Miami has had a strong running game, setting up play action.  We saw it when Edgerrin James’s rare combination of power, speed, and elusiveness started the wheels in motion of a Miami return to relevance.  It continued with James Jackson, Clinton Portis, Najeh Davenport, and DJ Williams. It followed with the greatest backfield combination in UM history with Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore. 

And speaking of a gaggle of talent in one backfield, Richt managed to assemble an incredible collection of talent in Athens, especially recently.  Todd Gurley.  Sony Michel.  Nick Chubb.  Keith Marshall.  Any of those guys would be a bell cow back on most teams.  There’s little doubt that Richt can identify and load his roster with high-caliber running backs. 

What he inherits in Coral Gables clearly isn’t as dynamic as what he left in Athens, but it’s one that’s young with plenty of upside.

The 2015 Miami rushing attack, by the numbers

Miami’s rushing production was pitiful, ranking 112th in the country in yards per carry and 118th in yards per game.  The offensive line, a complete sieve for most of the season, was certainly to blame for the embarrassing showing.  However, despite the overall poor output, Miami’s two-headed attack of Joe Yearby and Mark Walton provided hope for a 2016 breakthrough.  Yearby was steady, breaking the 1000 yard rushing mark, while Walton led the backfield in total touchdowns with 10 (9 rushing and 1 receiving).  In running for 1002 yards, Yearby became only the ninth running back in school history to break the 1000-yard barrier on the ground. Brad Kaaya also found his running back tandem useful in the passing game, as the duo combined for 45 catches for 566 yards, with Walton accounting for 293 of them.  The loss of Gus “The Bus” Edwards less than two weeks before the season opener certainly didn’t help the Canes’ efforts in short yardage situations. 

2016 Outlook

With Edwards back in the fold, the battle for the starting job becomes, realistically, a three-man race…..and should be one of the more interesting and competitive battles through fall practice.  That being said, it will be a tall task to unseat Yearby as the starter.  Besides having a year of experience as the starter under his belt, his overall balance and ability to contribute in the passing game certainly makes him useful in all down/distance situations. 

However, Walton has perhaps the higher ceiling.  His big-play ability gives him a puncher’s chance (maybe better) to take the job away.  He was responsible for some of the more electric plays of the season.  He managed to juke and weave his way for an eye-popping 25-yard touchdown to salt away the Georgia Tech win.  His reverse-field catch and run in the Sun Bowl, as well as his leaping one-handed grab, left us with a lasting impression going into the off season.  He also runs with more power than his 5’11, 196 pound frame would suggest.  He drove four Florida Atlantic players into the end zone to put the Owls away.  He also led the team in kickoff return yardage in 2015 and averaged 13.3 yards per catch, finishing fourth in receiving yards. 

Edwards returns, and has every reason to carry a chip on his shoulder.  After averaging 5.7 yards per carry in 2014 and rumbling for 6 touchdowns in 2014, his season ended in late August suffering a foot injury during a scrimmage.  He should, at a minimum, be called upon in short yardage and goal line situations, but his size and athleticism give him the best chance of being a closer against tired defenses.

The Canes will have two other running backs on the roster, although it’s difficult to see either of them breaking through and earning significant playing time.  It seems overwhelmingly likely that Class of 2016 running back Travis Homer will redshirt.  Junior Trayone Gray appeared in six games last year, tallying 145 yards on 23 carries with 2 touchdowns.

Put a gun to my head, and I see Yearby keeping the starting job coming out of camp.  But it wouldn’t be a shock to see Walton eventually take over as the lead back.  At a minimum, he and Edwards should both get lots of work, especially in short yardage and goal-to-go situations.