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Miami Hurricanes 2021 Spring Position Preview: Running Backs

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NCAA Football: Miami at Duke Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

If there’s a room that’s oozing with more talent than the University of Miami running back room, then...well...I call shenanigans. In fact, I’m not sure we’ve seen a room, at least at Miami, with as much pure ability as we did since the turn of the century when Miami’s backfield included Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, and Najeh Davenport.

Miami’s 2020 backfield of Cam Harris, Jaylan Knighton, and Donald Chaney, Jr. was one that received a lot of preseason attention due to the respective production of the aforementioned freshman. Adding the all-time leading rusher in Broward County with a two-time Dade County player of the year will do that.

And the season started off swimmingly, with Miami winning comfortably against UAB, Louisville, and Florida State. As expected, all three running backs were involved in the game plan, although Harris outpaced the freshman in carries.

Unfortunately, behind an inconsistent offensive line in the middle of the season, the running game struggled often. The Canes’ 42-17 beatdown by Clemson was the start of a shift away from a balanced offensive attack, and resulting struggles followed against mid-level ACC foes Virginia and Pitt. Miami was only averaging around 2.5 yards per carry during those two “ugly” wins, although Harris found himself more on the sideline against UVa while the freshman took over. To illustrate Miami’s futility in the running game, UM’s rushing leaders for those wins were D’Eriq King’s 32 yards against Pitt and Chaney’s 43 against UVa. W.O.O.F.

However, the offense and the running game sprung to life over the final three wins of the season, and it was Harris who was the beneficiary, receiving roughly the same number of carries as the freshman combined.

So, with a year of this terrific triumverate under our belts, how do things look heading into spring practice?

Cam Harris

In case you wondered, this is still likely Harris’ primary gig to lose. Hard not to see it any other way, given the staff’s apparent willingness to give upperclassmen the benefit of the doubt over younger guys. When the Canes started 3-0, Harris went for 134, 134, and 2 TDs against UAB, Louisville, and FSU, respectively. When the offense took off late, he was the primary benefactor as well.

Do I have anything to back that up, other than the coaching staff’s tendencies, along with the timing of the offense’s general productivity and Harris’s involvement therein? At this point no, but if you’d push me as to a reason why he’s the 1A option, those are what I’d give.

But this is the other thing I would add. As much as some people want to laud the freshman for their athletic abilities and point to Harris’s struggles and “benching” against UVa - this is top-notch ability on display here. Harris will take on contact more than willingly, but he’s still able to run around guys and hit a home run on any given play. He has a good balance of pop and speed, and that’s what you want from an RB1.

For the 2020 season, Harris went for 643 yards on 126 carries (5.1) for 10 TDs, chipping in 18 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown.

Donald Chaney, Jr.

Chaney Jr. might as well change his jersey number to 42 (ala Mariano Rivera), because - to me - he’s this team’s closer. Or at least he’s best suited to be. Although Chaney Jr. played throughout the season, it really stuck out to me how he came in and hammered away on tired defenses in the fourth quarter. He’s showing to be a physical hard runner who will make a tired defense will curse under their collective breath when they see him trot onto the field.

Hit up the 2:45 mark and watch him snatch UVa’s lunch money with hard, grinding running. Dragging multiple defenders on each run. Finishing off the drive with a big boy power move. Check out the 4:10 mark against Duke. He keeps his legs moving so well, pushing an entire crowd of players for an extra 4-5 yards. That kind of lower body strength is Frank Gore-esque to me, and he could be a special talent by the time he’s eligible to make the jump to the NFL. I think, as far as the total package of power, speed, and vision, that no one on this team has a more complete combination than Chaney Jr.

Jaylan Knighton

If you’re looking for a pure home run hitter amongst the group, you don’t have to look past Knighton. And if you want an example, you probably already have said moment in mind...

Sure, it was a coverage bust (thanks to a well-designed play), but Knighton’s speed was and is undeniable. Out of the three, I’m taking his wheels over all of them. Statistically, it wasn’t a great season for Knighton, who kind of ended up as a 1C option at the position by the end of the season. That being said, if the line play continues to improve, then Knighton could end up as the biggest beneficiary of all three. If you give him an inch, he’ll take the Miracle Mile...but unfortunately UM wasn’t in the (space) giving mood during significant portions of the fall.

Personally, I’d love to see what Rhett Lashlee can do with Knighton in space this season. We saw his hands on display above, but I don’t really feel like there was a whole lot drawn up for him that was particularly creative. Get him involved in the screen game, out of the backfield, split out wide, something. His pass catching ability and speed kind of felt wasted this fall, and both certainly are resources that Lashlee can tap into. Those are things I would be most excited to see from all of the running backs in spring ball - designed plays for Knighton.

For the season, Knighton tallied 209 yards on 52 carries (4.0) and a touchdown, along with 11 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown.

The Incoming Freshman

Miami’s talented trio grew by two in the past few months, as long-time commitment Thad Franklin inked his national letter of intent with the Canes. The local Chaminade-Madonna prospect will step into the competition later in the year, as he’s not listed as an early enrollee/active roster member by the University of Miami. At 6’0, 225 pounds, Franklin is built like a human tank, and should find a role in a short yardage/late game role early in his UM career, with a high ceiling to work into.

Cody Brown originally signed with Tennessee, but was released from his national letter of intent following the chaos and coaching turnover in Knoxville. At 6’0, 215 lbs, he’s another physical back who should compete for a reserve role early in his time at UM. His arrival provides very solid depth following the transfer of Robert Burns.

Conclusion

Entering camp, I expect things to be mostly the same as the season ended and likely finish that way, with Harris slightly ahead as the lead back. What I really hope to see is Knighton’s increased and more dynamic usage in the offensive game plan.

So what do you all expect from this spring RB battle? Who do you think shines, and what do you hope to see in spring practice/spring game? Let’s hear it.