Over the next few weeks, before spring practice starts on March 30th, we'll be taking a look at each section of the team, assessing its strengths and weaknesses, and looking at any battles that will be taking place. Today we look at the running backs.
In recent years, Oregon has seen incredible production from the running back position. In the past 10 years, Oregon can make a very serious case for being the top running back school in the Pac-10. Oregon has turned out top back after top back. And 2009 shouldn't be any different.
Despite the suspension, I have full confidence that LeGarrette Blount will be donning pads as the starting running back in Boise next fall. And we all know what that will mean. We've seen a lot of great backs at Oregon, and Blount is comparable to any of them. He is huge, strong, agile, and has surprising speed. Though he carried the ball slightly over 10 times per game, he topped the 1000 yard mark, at a ridiculous 7.3 ypc. When on the field, there is little to criticize. He can run inside and outside, and has excellent vision. He has some of the best balance I've ever seen in a back, and for such a large guy, it's incredibly impressive. Just check out a youtube search for Blount, and it is clip after clip of ridiculous athleticism.
Blount's only issues are off the field. He was recently suspended for "failure to meet team expectations." Blount was surprisingly unconcerned about the situation, which could mean that this really isn't a serious issue, or Blount is oblivious to the gravity of the situation. However, If what Blount says is correct, then there should be little to worry about. While academic or personal issues could be harder to correct, Blount can easily take part in all strength and conditioning activity, and get back in Bellotti's good graces. With this move, it's clear that Mike Bellotti won't take any crap from his running back, so let's just hope it gets through to Blount. Though I think things will be fine, talented running backs can rarely be fully trusted.
What we simply need to see out of Blount during the spring is him on the field and in shape, cause if he's there, he will tear it up.
The Redshirt Freshman:
One of the strongest pick ups of the 2008 recruiting class was LaMichael James. However, James has been overlooked to some degree. He wasn't mentioned much last year due to two freshman QBs arriving for spring practice last year, as well as the saga around Terelle Pryor. And now, after undergoing shoulder surgery, and the recruiting of Bryce Brown, he seems to be getting lost again.
Yet, James is a back full of promise. He's got great top line speed, and has the ability to change directions and make people miss. At one practice last season, he stole the show when given the chance. James has that big play ability, much like Jeremiah Johnson, and he could fill JJ's role nicely. One thing that you'll notice from his highlight clip, is that with his speed, is that not only can he change direction quickly, but his speed allows him to turn the corner seamlessly, and blow past the defenders. Furthermore, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, which Blount has not done often, adding another dimension to the backfield.
Unfortunately, due to his shoulder surgery, James will be withheld from contact during spring drills. However, Oregon fans will get a chance to watch him during track season, as he is a member of the Oregon outdoor track team.
The Solid Backups:
In my mind, Alston, a junior, will be the 2nd back (after Blount) in the spring. Though younger than Crenshaw, he really stepped up last year in his opportunities. In some ways, he reminds of Jacquizz Rodgers, as he's 5'8" yet a stout 200 pounds. He has good balance and strength, and can go up the field well. He accrued 161 yards on 21 carries, in mop up duty, before breaking his foot in October. While Duck fans haven't seen much of him, he has good promise, and could see some very productive time this year.
Finally, senior Andrew Crenshaw wraps up the group. As a sophomore in 2007, Crenshaw saw quite a bit of playing time, including over 100 yards in the Stormtrooper massacre in Seattle. However, it just seems like he just does not have the talent to make that leap towards starting running back. In 2007, he had chances to shine, getting a good deal of carries with the injuries to Johnson and Stewart, but just didn't seem to really take advantage of that. While he is a very solid back, he doesn't do any one thing exceptionally well. Where James has exceptional agility and speed, and Alston has balance and strength, Crenshaw is average at all these aspects. And because of that, he'll probably end his career on the bench.
Unfortunately, at this very moment, Alston and Crenshaw are the only scholarship running backs that would be available to play were a game tomorrow. Needless to say, this is a frightening scenario. While Alston could be a very good back and Crenshaw is solid, if Blount and James are unavailable, it will be a significant problem for the offense. If further disaster did strike and even these two became injured, Chris Harper and Malachi Lewis would be available at running back as well, though let's just hope that doesn't happen.
This spring will tell us just how deep our running back corp is. If Blount's suspension is not lifted, then we'll see Alston and Crenshaw, and they will most likely fight out the battle for 3rd string (or possibly 4th if Bryce Brown is signed). In college football, you never know who will be healthy when, so developing the entire depth chart could end up being very important, and getting to really see these players will either keep us praying every night, or give us peace of mind at the running back position.