I'm not going to lie. I'm staring at my screen right now, wondering (at least a little bit) whether, in a few months, this is going to look totally different. I wrote back in April about the status of the running back competition going into spring ball. Then, Mark Walton was arrested for a DUI, and all bets were off.
Now, with the prosecution reportedly handling (mishandling?) this matter in a less-than-stellar manner, perhaps Mark will be fully cleared and proceed without further punishment. His presence makes a world of difference at the position, given his explosiveness, ability in the passing game, and strong running style.
In case you forgot, here's the list of candidates and how they looked in the spring game:
Gus Edwards: 16-57, TD, long of 12 yards
Mark Walton: 10-56, 16
Trayone Gray: 8-20, 11
Joe Yearby: 7-7 (5)
That many options able to run the ball is a welcome sight, since UM's rancid 2015 rushing production was good for 112th in the NCAA in yards per carry; 118th in yards per game. Those are the ugly facts. That said, all of this has to be put in perspective that Miami was running behind an offensive line acting as a collective turnstile at times. Running lanes were limited, and playcalling to offset said lack of push was sadly lacking. The positive is there is only one place to go: up.
The good news, I suppose, is that do-everything-pretty-well Joe Yearby cracked the 1000 yard rushing mark. So, personal stats, and all that pizzazz.
But that was with Golden Alfred and James Coley heading up the decisions on splitting the duties between a diverse group of candidates. Among a bulldozer (Gus Edwards), a little engine that could, and then some (Mark Walton), and the old, trusty four-wheel drive, go-anywhere-at-a-moderate-speed family truckster (Joe Yearby), that staff leaned towards Yearby (especially after the bulldozer lost its tread in fall practice). And it's hard to argue, given Yearby's cumulative, jack-of-all-trades skill set. He's a reliable runner. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's adequate in protection - which, given the Pamplona-style running-of-the-defenders that Kaaya faced last year, that latter trait could not be undervalued.
Now, we enter a new year, and a new era. And a coach in Mark Richt who knows damned well - probably as well as any head coach in the country over the past 6-8 years - how to manage and get the most out of a surplus of talent in a crowded backfield. The line will be better. The coaching staff is most certainly better. The attitude and general vibe reported among the team seems to be better.
So, first and foremost, who can make the most plays for the Canes this fall?
I know I wrote Yearby back in April. But I'm fickle. I go back and watch what Walton did against Wazzu, especially out of the backfield. The sprawled-out catch. The sideline-to-sideline run. Then I look back at how he weaved and undressed Georgia Tech defenders on a screen pass. Then see how he dog-sledded a quartet of FAU defenders into the end zone to ice the Friday night win over the Owls. Fourth on the team in receiving yards. Ten touchdowns, with three called back. The most likely to run off chunk plays and make house calls. Dude just produces in big ways.
In Walton, I just see a guy who's going to make those 3, 4, or 5 impact plays that tilt a game in the Canes' favor and, by the eye test, is overall the most dynamic and talented of the group.
THE GUY WHO COULD PROVE ME A FOOL:
Edwards. Yeah, I'm REALLY fickle. While Yearby led the group in rushing last year, it was in part due to the absence of the Gus Bus. So far, from spring drills, Edwards has retained a seeming place at or near the top of the depth chart. And if Walton ends up missing any time, Edwards appears to be next in line to earn the lion's share of reps, given Richt's history of a physical, punishing running game. Edwards would serve as an able battering ram able to break free in the next level of the defense.
WHAT (I THINK) WILL HAPPEN:
Walton either beats the charges, or pleads out to a lesser offense and is available for most, if not all, of this season. Given his three-down capabilities, he earns the starting gig and shares significant first/second down reps with the Gus Bus. Yearby serves to spell them, while Gray gets a long look on kickoff returns. Incoming freshman Travis Homer redshirts. Miami improves its anemic 2015 rushing attack exponentially, as Walton cracks the 1000-yard barrier, with Edwards not that far behind.