Prior to the 2017 season, Miami’s running game was considered the strength of the offense. With inexperienced quarterback Malik Rosier being named the starter, junior running back Mark Walton was expected to provide stability and identity to the offense. Unfortunately, Walton’s season and Miami career ended abruptly when he sustained an ankle injury against Florida State that required surgery. Consequently, Miami had to scramble to prepare Travis Homer for a leading role and find ways to provide depth behind him in what was one of the thinnest positions on the entire team.
Mark Richt and Thomas Brown managed through the adversity, and while Miami’s running game wasn’t a large impediment to the team’s success, it was clear that Walton’s impact was missed. There was some creativity required to incorporate DeeJay Dallas and Malik Rosier into the running game to alleviate the stress on Homer. However, QB draws and wildcat formations aside, I’m sure Richt was uncomfortable without his offensive staple of a powerful, elite running back. All in all, the Canes finished the year ranked 71st in rushing offense (160.77 yds/game), 115th in rushing attempts per game (31.85), and 24th in average yards per rush (5.05).
Most Valuable Player: Mark Walton
Even though he only played in four games and was limited by injury in most of them before the final blow in Tallahassee, Walton was the most valuable player not just in the backfield but arguably the entire roster. He was the face of the team and a leader who injected emotion and competitiveness every day. He was an all-ACC running back who found himself on numerous preseason award watch lists. We’ll never know how the season may have played out barring Walton’s injury, but it clearly forced Malik Rosier to carry a load which he could not manage. Through Walton’s four games, granted against suspect opponents, he accrued 428 yards (7.6 yds/carry, wow), three touchdowns, and a long run of 82 yards. I wish Mark Walton success as he prepares for his NFL career.
Most Improved Player: Travis Homer
Travis Homer deserves great praise for not only meeting the challenge of becoming Miami’s primary running back, but also exceeding most people’s expectations. In 2016, Homer was a standout special teams player, but there were questions from his limited carries at RB as to whether his size and ability would allow him to succeed as the go-to running back. Homer immediately answered those questions this year with a resounding yes when he posted a 170 yard performance against Georgia Tech in his first start. Next season will bring new challenges for Homer as he attempts to defend his starting job from talented freshmen, but for now there’s no question that he deserves to be RB1 for the Canes moving forward. Homer finished the season with 966 yards (5.9 yds/carry), eight touchdowns, and a long run of 64 yards. He also added to the pass game with 18 receptions for 219 yards and one touchdown and a solid job of pass protection.
Rookie of the Year: DeeJay Dallas
Would not have called this one back in September seeing as DeeJay Dallas was still practicing with the receivers group. As mentioned before, Walton’s injury forced Dallas’ position switch to bolster the backfield with necessary depth. I think this move was positive for DeeJay as he was better able to use his athleticism to help the team immediately rather than being lost on the receiver depth chart. A QB in high school, Dallas used that experience at Miami to be inserted into a variety of different personnel packages and wildcat formations. His first flash was on a 49 yard catch against UNC, and as his confidence grew he emerged as a solid playmaker with noteworthy performances against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin. Dallas still needs to develop his pass protection, scheme knowledge, and running back fundamentals, but the sky is the limit for DeeJay. I look forward to him taking the next step as a player and leader in 2018. Dallas finished this past season with 217 rushing yards (5.3 yds/carry) and three touchdowns. He also had four receptions for 92 yards.