Season Preview: Running Backs

Mark Walton with a TD at GT. Photo/Todd Forrest

With the quarterback competition preview hot off the presses, let’s not waste any time before examining Miami’s running backs.

And like Mark Richt at the Paradise Camp pool party: We’re diving right in.

There’s little doubt who the go-to guy will be on Miami’s offense in 2017. After accounting for nearly 50% of the team’s carries last season, you can bet the Canes will continue to lean on Mark Walton.

Most of the preseason magazines have Walton as 1st Team All-ACC but not everyone in the media world appreciates the conference’s only returning 1,000-yard rusher. Sports Illustrated (surprise surprise) shunned Walton on its list of top 100 College Football Players. In fact, several of the so-called experts have anointed FSU true freshman Cam Akers as the top back in the ACC. And they might be right. Then again, they might just reignite the fire under Walton – who would have owned the conference’s “Run of the Year” with his insane TD scamper vs FSU if not for a bogus holding penalty.

He’ll also be playing 2017 with a heavy heart due to the passing of his mother, Kimberly Rogers back in March. Walton, who also lost his father when he was 7 years old, found comfort in the birth of his first child on Feb. 9th, more than two weeks prior to the stroke that took his mother’s life on March 2.

Ma’ Lani Nicole Walton, whose due date wasn’t until Feb. 27, arrived 18 days early, allowing Rogers to spend precious time with her 4-pound, 2-ounce granddaughter.

Walton, the 2016 team MVP, tallied nearly 1,200 rushing yards with 14 scores in 2016 and is among the nation’s top pass catchers and route runners out of the backfield – 27 catches for 240 yards and a TD. What’s even more impressive about this local product is the fact that he graduated high school a year early and recorded 10 total TDs (nine rushing, one receiving) as a true freshman at Miami, in what should have been his senior season of high school.

With 1,566 yards on the ground in his career, Walton is 1,295 yards shy of passing Edgerrin James for third all-time at the University of Miami. Should Walton go off in 2017 and top 1,800 yards, he would pass Otis Anderson (3,331 yards) for second and begin approaching Duke Johnson’s school record of 3,519.

Walton’s 25 total TDs leaves him 10 short of equaling Stephen McGuire (1989-92) and Edgerrin James’ (1996-98) school record of 35 total touchdowns. McGuire’s mark of 35 TDs is also the school record for rushing scores and Walton (23) is 12 shy of tying that number.

However, much of Walton’s success will rest on the development of the Canes offensive line. When the O-line struggled, Walton struggled. And when Walton struggled, Miami struggled; see the Notre Dame and Va Tech games.

When Coach Richt took the job in December 2015, he expected to enter 2017 with three legitimate running backs, but things didn’t go as planned.

Joseph Yearby, a 1,000-yard back as a sophomore in 2015 and Dalvin Cook’s backfield mate at Miami Central High School, was relegated to a reserve role when Walton won the starting job in 2016. Raising a young son, Yearby understandably decided to forego his senior season to enter the draft. Had Yearby remained, the Canes could have sported a backfield that rivaled his Miami Central days with two 1,000-yard rushers.

Joseph Yearby scores at GT. Photo/Todd Forrest

Rising senior Gus “The Bus” Edwards moved on to Rutgers as a graduate-transfer after rushing for 290 yards and a score as the third-string RB in 2016. He did rush for 106 in the opener vs Florida A&M and at 230 pounds, the bruising Edwards was a nice change-of-pace to the 205-pound Walton.

Gus Edwards. Photo/Todd Forrest

Earlier this summer, Miami thought they were the front-runner to land Clemson grad-transfer Tyshon Dye but the Elberton, Ga native chose the possibility of a starting job at East Carolina over a backup role at Running Back U. To each his own, I guess.
The departure of Yearby and Edwards have left the top of the depth chart pretty cut-and-dry, but who will spell Walton remains up in the air. Rising sophomore Travis Homer seems to have the inside track to the backup job but with only seven carries for 44 yards in 2016, the jury is still out on the Special Teams MVP.

Coaches have praised Homer since the spring and are confident the 195-pound, 4-star Palm Beach County recruit will provide the offense with a speedy No. 2 back capable of making a house call from anywhere on the field.

Travis Homer. Photo/Todd Forrest

Redshirt-junior Trayone Gray is another unproven back that sat out all of last year with an ACL injury. Like Homer, he saw saw limited carries during his first two seasons – appearing in 11 games and averaging 5.8 yards per carry. At, 6-2, 235 pounds with deceptive speed, Gray is the ideal replacement for Edwards in short yardage situations, but like Edwards, can he stay on the field?

Incoming freshman Robert Burns has star potential written all over him but durability issues have lingered throughout his career. After an injury cost Burns his senior season at Gulliver Prep, he enrolled at Miami in January and was expected to take part in spring drills. That was until a shoulder injury sidelined the early enrollee. Burns has the speed and the size (215 pounds) to contribute as a freshman but will he remain healthy enough to prevent getting lost in the mix, especially if Gray returns to 100%.

Others that could see reps in the backfield are junior TJ Callan and converted linebackers DJ Washington and Mike Smith. Washington (6-0, 240, Raleigh, NC) was the Scout Team MVP last year as a freshman walk-on LB but was moved to fullback in the spring. Meanwhile, Smith (6-1, 236) saw action as the backup MLB last season but was in the news recently when it was announced that the Miami native could also serve as the offense’s blocking back after changing his number from 57 to 35.

DJ Washington with his Scout Team MVP award.

(For more info on DJ Washington you can visit the earlier blog entry titled: Silent Storm: Overlooked Canes)

Another player who has recently made news at the running back position is freshman DeeJay Dallas who could potentially see action in the backfield, but only in an emergency situation, according to coaches. A quarterback during high school in Brunswick, Ga, Dallas was originally expected to join the Miami defense at cornerback, but wound up earning a spot among the receiving corps. An explosive athlete, Dallas could become a dangerous back down the road, but lets hope he doesn’t see any carries in 2017. If he does, something went terribly wrong.

Rounding the roster at the running back position is junior Crispian Atkins (5-9, 185, Plant City); Cesar Castillo (6-2, 230, Jupiter); Danny Dominguez (5-10, 218, Miami); Jack Pope (6-2, 248, Geneseo, NY).

With the departure of Brad Kaaya, Walton has said that he plans on becoming more of a vocal leader in 2017. And with a new quarterback, the running game will be called upon to lead the way until the new signal caller settles in.

You can expect opposing defenses to load up the box until the Canes’ QB proves that he’s capable of making throws. But with the addition of Jeff Thomas, Mike Harley, and the return of Ahmmon Richards, Miami will have plenty of weapons capable of turning a short completion into a big gain. But until Lorenzo Lingard and Cam Davis arrive in 2018, the main thing is keeping Walton healthy. The loss of Yearby and Edwards have really thinned out the depth. Homer has skills, but is he ready to be an every down back? Can Burns stay healthy? Can Gray return to form? If we can answer those questions in fall camp and vs Bethune Cookman and Arkansas State, I’ll feel extremely confident about our chances of reaching the ACC title game. Until then, we’ll just wait and see.

Up next we’ll preview the wide receivers and tight ends. In order to keep these entries from turning into a novel, I’ll preview each position instead of the entire offense at one time. The defensive preview took forever to write, and almost as long to read, so I’ll try to keep my posts short-and-sweet.

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably following me on Twitter. If not, then give me follow: @hotrodtodd25

Thanks for reading. Go Canes!

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