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Miami Hurricanes’ Running Back Room is Absolutely Loaded. Will They Become an All-Time Backfield?

In 2001, Miami Had the Best Running Back Room Ever as Five Players Made The NFL. Time Will Tell and Games Need to be Played, But on Paper, the Current Canes Committee Could Challenge.

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On the morning of National Signing Day last week, there were rumors swirling that the 108th ranked overall recruit in the nation according to 247Sports Composite rankings, running back, Trevonte’ Citizen, was still considering signing with Miami despite immense speculation that LSU and Florida were his final two. And then, at his signing ceremony, Citizen played hat games with the respective fans of Auburn, Florida, LSU, and even Miami, before finally putting on the White U hat and throwing up the iconic ‘U’.

Landing the ninth best running back in the nation in itself cannot be undersold, but, more importantly, rounds out what may be one of the best running back rooms in the nation.

Citizen was not the only addition this recruiting cycle, as Miami also landed the 227th running back from the nation in the 2020 class, Henry Parrish, who transferred to the U from Ole Miss. Parrish has accumulated 814 rushing yards on 161 attempts, as well as five rushing touchdowns, and 28 receptions for 232 yards. He also exhibits some kick return experience.

The two offseason additions can largely be attributed to Miami’s new running backs coach, Kevin Smith, who was announced to the position on January 14th of this year. Namely, Smith was RB coach at Ole Miss, and was credited with Parrish’s recruitment in 2020, and has been recognized as the man responsible for Citizen’s signing as well. Smith replaced Eric Hickson, who wrapped up his third season and is now in the same position at nearby FIU.

From a depth perspective, these two names are just the scratch of the surface for Miami’s room, which was already a strong cohort. The marquis piece in Miami’s backfield for 2021 was Jaylan Knighton. Knighton was deemed an all-purpose class out of Deerfield Beach in the 2020 class and ranked 106th in the same 247Sports Composite recruiting group as Parrish. In 17 games his first two season, Knighton has tallied 770 rushing yards on 197 attempts, with nine rushing touchdowns, and 31 receptions for 415 yards and four receiving touchdowns. The third-year back also has some experience at kick returning.

Also in the same recruiting class as Knighton and Parrish, Belen Jesuit Prep running back, Don Chaney Jr., was ranked just behind Knighton at 114th overall according to 247Sports Composite. Chaney suffered a season-ending ACL tear in 2021 but accumulated 322 yards on 68 carries and scored three times, as well 11 receptions for 143 yards in his freshman campaign.

The penultimate recruiting class in 2021 also included the addition of a dynamic duo. Miami added the 247th overall ranked recruit by 247Sports Composite from Chaminade-Madonna Prep in power back Thad Franklin. Franklin found the endzone twice during his true freshman year on 172 yards. In 2021, the Canes also added the 233rd overall ranked recruit in Cody Brown, who tallied 139 yards and three touchdowns on 139 yards.

To summarize, the Canes’ backfield consists of the following pieces (247Sports Composite Rank and rushing stats):

For those keeping track at home, all six of the running backs, if they continue their trajectory, are projected to be drafted into NFL based on the 247Sports Composite ranking (all are ranked within the top-260 of their respective classes, which is roughly the amount of draft picks per year depending on the amount of compensatory picks awarded to franchises).

As we all know, this path does not always perfectly equate to professional success or draft slot as players either exceed or fall short of expectations during their collegiate careers. However, if all six made the NFL, it would be the most Hurricane running backs to make the NFL from that were on one team since Miami had five RBs jump to the NFL from the 2001 room: Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Najeh Davenport, and Jarrett Payton.

The runway to get a stacked backfield appears to have been initiated due to a recent history of an #RBU at the U. First, Duke Johnson was drafted in the third round in 2015 (Mike James, 2013 Draft, and Lamar Miller, 2012 Draft also made NFL). Johnson’s career at Miami overlapped with Gus Edwards, who joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2018 after a graduate transfer year at Rutgers. Then, Edwards played in a backfield with Mark Walton and Travis Homer. The latter duo in the fourth round (2018) and sixth round (2019), respectively, but Walton has since been out of the league due to legal issues. Next up, 2020 sixth round pick, DeeJay Dallas, also played with both Walton and Homer. Finally, Miami third year back, Cam’Ron Harris, entered the NFL Draft for this year and had one year of overlap with Dallas. Harris also was on the roster this past season with Knighton, Chaney Jr., Franklin, and Brown.

As you can see, the torch has been carried in a seamless manner transitioning from 2015 to present date. And the current ring of succession may have the deepest throng, at six-deep, to continue the recent #RBU trend, as they signed two solid options in each of the last three recruiting cycles. This stockpiled group should continue the trend.

While Kevin Smith is a huge addition, the Josh Gattis signing to Offensive Coordinator is equally exciting from a play-call perspective. Gattis has shown immense adaptability in changing gameplan based on his personnel. Notably, even though Gattis’ strongest background is in the wide receivers room as that is a position he has centered around since 2011, last year’s Michigan team did not have the strongest aerial attack (no receiver eclipsed 650 yards or 40+ receptions). Rather, Gattis employed a passing attack that allowed quarterback Cade McNamara to distribute the ball to various targets where 11 players had 10+ targets and 10 of those had 130+ receiving yards.

That should be a good sign for promising quarterback, Tyler Van Dyke, who will look to distribute the ball to his various targets including Xavier Restrepo, Keyshawn Smith, Jacolby George, Brashard Smith, Michael Redding III, Romello Brinson, as well as former five-star transfer Frank Ladson Jr.

In conjunction with the passing game, Gattis employed a ground and pound running attack. To that end, Michigan had the 15th best rushing offense in the nation that accumulated 3,001 yards. The rushing attack was led by Hassan Haskins, who had 1,327 rushing yards, good for 17th in the nation. Blake Corum complemented the group nearly 1k yards himself, ending the season with 952 yards. Michigan is known to have a historically renowned offensive line group and this year’s group worked well together as tackle Andrew Steuber and center Andrew Vastardis both head to the NFL.

Gattis unlocked the offense once he realized the key to “explosive plays” was getting the ball to the backs, players who were capable of bolstering the rushing attack by also mixing in fakes, reverses, end-arounds, and jet sweeps, which ultimately led to home runs behind the blocking schemes and limiting negative plays in a fast-paced offense with smart execution.

How will this equate to Miami’s unit? Well, the interplay between Gattis and Smith, who will primarily work with the skill players, and HC Mario Cristobal and offensive line coach, Alex Mirabal, who both came over from Oregon and are offensive line-minded will be important. Miami’s offensive line has been a concerning spot in recent years but they have a lot of up-and-coming promise led by Zion Nelson, Jalen Rivers, and DJ Scaife, as well as Oregon transfer, Logan Sagapolu.

Miami Introduces Mario Cristobal as Head Football Coach Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Gattis also emphasizes blocking as a strength for his tight ends, which is where Will Mallory’s experience will be key, and perhaps even Franklin if he is open to some exposure as a fullback at times. The key in play-calling will be mixing versatility and precision with physical play, but also letting Van Dyke do his thing so the game is not a one-dimensional rushing scheme. The expectation is Gattis will predominantly employ 11 (1RB, 1TE) and 12 (1RB, 2TE) sets but may not stray away from 21 (2RB, 1 TE) and 22 (2RB, 2TE) sets at times.

The pieces are all in place for this running back group to thrive in 2022 and beyond. Could it compete with the Miami 2001 room or even the Alabama 2013 running back depth chart that once had Alvin Kamara, Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry, and T.J. Yeldon all at the same time? It is obviously too early to crown them like that but a few of the backs have already shown flashes in their collegiate career. Beyond that, the clear achilles heel with a backfield this loaded and the increased advent of the NCAA Transfer Portal is that one or more of the players leave the program entirely.

However, as it looks now, the roster is six-deep with a surrounding cast of coaches and complementary positional players to truly be excellent. The Canes’ backfield could produce multiple 1,000-yard rushers, a nationally ranked rushing attack, and, hopefully, six players that lead the U to top tier Bowl Games en route to their NFL careers repping Miami as ProCanes on Sundays.