Projecting the Offense – Part 4: Running Backs

In the final installment of our projection series, we look at the weakest facet of the IU offense in 2016 – the running game. IU’s backs may be in for another rough season in 2017, unless a new staff makes significant progress and a few young players emerge.

We’ll start with a look at IU’s rushing numbers in the last five seasons of the Wilson Era:

From 2013 through 2015, IU was a solidly above-average running team1 2016, on the other hand, was IU’s worst year on the ground since 2011, Kevin Wilson’s first year, when IU went 1-11. Suffice to say, IU went to a bowl game in 2016 despite a poor rushing attack.

As you’d expect, the individual numbers aren’t much better…

The chart shows that IU’s top 2 rushers are gone – Devine Redding (1,122 yds) and Zander Diamont (247 yds). The good news is that everybody else in the above chart is back. The bad news is that the total yardage returning is only 776 yards and 4 TDs (and only 2 TDs from running backs).

So probably the two biggest factors in crafting rushing projections – the previous season’s performance and returning production – point to a less-than-stellar year for IU’s run game.  Maybe some other factors paint a rosier picture…

  • All-American guard Dan Feeney is a San Diego Charger. Former starters2 Wes Rogers, Dimitric Camiel and Jacob Bailey are also gone. Brandon Knight was held out of some or all of fall camp due to injury. That’s five guys that started games on the O-line in 2016 that will not be available (or probably won’t be available, in Knight’s case) on August 31 against Ohio State. The good news is that 4 guys that started or appeared in several games in 2016 will likely start against the Buckeyes.3 With Coy Cronk, Wes Martin, Simon Stepaniak and Delroy Baker, the IU offensive line has good size, some experience and solid potential. We still don’t know who will line up at center, with Harry Crider, Hunter Littlejohn or possibly Brandon Knight in the mix. All in all, the offensive line will probably take a step back due to Feeney’s departure, but that step back could be quite small if this group responds to new OL coach Darren Hiller and plays to its potential (getting Knight back would also help).
  • Mike DeBord likes to run the ball early and often.  Although a slightly lower pace might cut into the total number of plays, IU’s running backs should see an increase in running percentage.  This increase may be smaller than you think, however, because IU ran it 54% of the time last year.
  • As discussed in the last two posts, the passing game should be above average—at the very least—so defenses may be unwilling to commit safeties to stop the run.
  • Unless something crazy happens, this sure looks like a running back-by-committee year. IU has had a clear No. 1 back heading into the season going all the way back to 2012. In 2011, the last time IU’s running back situation was anywhere near as muddy as right now, Stephen Houston emerged in the middle of the season. That may happen this year. In any event, I would be shocked if any IU back carries the ball for more than 50% of the rushes by backs, as Devine Redding did last year (57%).

Frankly, I’ll be surprised if any back tops 40%. The projections below reflect that uncertainty and likely committee approach.

Now that we’re all in a realistic4 frame of mind about IU’s prospects on the ground in 2017, let’s take a look at the projections. One more time, these projections are (1) based on a 12-game season, (2) assume roughly the same schedule difficulty from year to year, (3) assume health and (4) are not meant to be added up between players. By that I mean, adding up the “floor” projections for each player shouldn’t necessarily equal the “floor” projection for the passing or rushing offense.

  •  For the moment, I’m comfortable naming Mike Majette chairman of the committee.  He has the most experience, and in limited duty, he has flashed more explosiveness than any of the other returning backs.5 He is also the best receiver of the bunch, which should come into play a little more in DeBord’s offense.  His floor will happen if some other back seizes the starting job; his midpoint will happen if he’s a prominent member of a 3-to-5 back committee in an average to slightly below average rushing offense (the expected result, as far as I’m concerned); and his ceiling will happen is he shows himself to be decent No. 1 back in a relatively good running offense, albeit one that splits time with others.

  • These projections reflect my view that, until he proves otherwise, Devonte Williams is a decent backup or 3rd stringer, good for a change of pace and some catches out of the backfield, but not quite capable of carrying the load as a lead back.

  • I view Cole Gest’s ceiling as considerably higher than Williams’. As I see it, the only current RB that has a higher ceiling than him is Morgan Ellison. Gest’s ceiling numbers for 2017 are a little higher than Ellison’s simply because Gest has a one year head start in college football.

  • Speaking of Ellison, these projections still have his floor as zeroes across the board, meaning he redshirts. Each new report that comes in on Ellison’s performance makes that floor seem less likely, but I can’t quite rule it out yet. Nonetheless, his ceiling numbers (over 700 yds and 6 TDs) reveal that I’m pretty bullish on the true freshman from Ohio.

  • I have no idea what to expect from Tyler Natee this year. His floor represents an offensive staff that just does not buy into Kevin Wilson’s pet project. His ceiling seems to be a short-yardage specialist, with some late-game run-out-the-clock bruising thrown in. I hope for the latter because it was a lot of fun to watch Natee last year when he had it going.6 I fear that the new coaching staff may look at him without the mad scientist’s eye that Ol’ K Dub had. And there will always be questions about conditioning for a guy that size. For what it’s worth (probably not much), Natee didn’t see the field in the bowl game last year following Wilson’s resignation.