Fall Camp Guide 2010: Running Backs

Fall Camp Guide 2010: Running Backs

With the assistance of an improved offensive line, passing attack, the direct contribution of Jerrod Johnson's legs last season and the two difference makers at running back, in Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray, the A&M ground game stepped up it's efforts in a big way, more than doubling the previous seasons output. Websider's Jeffrey Jennings brings you the fall camp guide for running backs.

With the assistance of an improved offensive line, passing attack, the direct contribution of Jerrod Johnson's legs,and the two difference makers at running back last season, in Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray, the A&M ground game stepped up it's efforts in a big way, more than doubling the previous seasons output. They averaged right at 185 rushing yards per game in 2009 (versus 2008's struggling collective effort of 88.5 ypg) and ranked 30th on the ground (2nd in the Big XII), lending it's hand in taking off the pressure and setting up a balance that led to the 5th ranked offense in the nation.

This August the talented duo looks to elevate their high level of play and fine tune their respective games, while Bradley Stephens, Kalvin Guyton and a young physical crop of athletes seeks to raise their stock and round out a relatively deep and versatile stable of backs. Another thing to focus on during fall camp is how hard the backs are hitting the holes. It was a clearly a point of emphasis last spring and I'm personally looking forward to the aggressive and attacking running style carried out by this group. Lets take a deeper look at the A&M ground game.

Running Back

There is no sense in mincing words with Christine Michael. He is flat out the most talented back A&M has signed in over a decade and the Big XII Offensive Freshman of the Year will be the best back in the conference this season. He arrived the part as a true-freshmen last summer, but he has clearly put in the work this off-season and now checks in with NFL weight as a trim but beastly 217 pounds (without having lost a step according to Coach Sherman) and is squatting over the 650-pound mark. Not only more powerful and durable, he has elevated his game and is no longer zig-zagging and dancing through the hole but hitting it quick and hard every time (a clear and concentrated focus of coaches for all the backs). While he split time with Cyrus Gray as a freshman, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry, netting 844 yards, with 10 touchdowns (including an incredible 97 yard rush against Baylor). While taking nothing away from Gray, Michael has separated himself and will be the feature back in 2010.

Many RB's are described as powerful and fast but while balanced they usually, at best, excel at just one facet. Christine Michael takes both styles to the highest level in one neatly packaged upper echelon back. His shiftiness and balance are on par with the great scat backs but he also runs with brute power and he has the vision to set himself up for whichever he needs at any given moment. Not only does he have true blue chip ability but the work ethic to take his talents to the level. While he has improved his efficiency in hitting the hole he still needs work on his hands out of the backfield and like most young backs must improve his blocking. Ask any NFL scout and they put almost as much a premium on the latter as they do in running ability. He suffered an elbow injury about midway through camp that shelved him and hindered his development in those areas but look for the hard working young phenom to work hard on those areas this August as he seeks to perfect his already dangerous game.

Cyrus Gray's own confidence and comfort in what he is doing, not to mention Michael's presence, proved to big a big boost and a kick in the rear last season. The two split the load about dead even (Gray had a 4.8 yard per carry average, a net of 757 and five touchdowns) and complimented each other well. Game-to-game, when one seemed to struggle last season, the other picked up the slack for the most part. Michael has since separated himself a bit but regardless of who is technically the starter both will see extensive time and as our offensive line and offense in general develops, both will give defenses headaches for years to come. Already an extremely fast (Cyrus was clocked as the 3rd fastest member of the team running a 4.38 in mid July) and shifty runner, with great balance and big play potential, Gray has added a little beef and is much more decisive runner, really hitting his holes hard and has pushed his game into another gear. Coach Sherman specifically named him as a player who pleasantly surprised him this spring stating, " . . . he's running on instinct and natural ability whereas before he was thinking too much and didn't hit the holes as quickly as he should . . .". Though he'll be used more as the number two in 2010, Gray is very capable of breaking the big one and has much better hands than Michael (in 2009 Cyrus had 28 receptions, 226 yards and two receiving touchdowns). He'll be utilized accordingly without the Ags' giving up anything in the backfield when the situation dictates his presence.

This past spring, the speedy, squatty-powerful, north/south style, efficient-finishing-back Kalvin Guyton sought to put room between himself and the arrival of several incoming talented RB's who seem to fit the a similar profile. While it remains unknown how much separation he created for himself, he made the most of his opportunity, had a great camp and will get some carries this fall. He's not as explosive as Michael or Gray but he no doubt plays with a nasty attitude and not only loves the opportunity to return the favor of ill-intentioned defenders but often delivers quite a wallop on them. Guyton will be a great change-up back who can give A&M another dimension in getting the tough yards without wearing down a feature guy like Michael.

In an attempt to bolster safety depth and find some action for the extremely talented and athletic Bradley Stephens, he has given a hard look at on defense this spring but when it was obvious the move wasn't going to shake out, the staff didn't hesitate to get him back on offense. Coach Sherman expressed his respect and admiration for Bradley and said he wouldn't keep him there if he felt Stephens wasn't going to cut it on defense but he expounded that he wants to get him out there somewhere. For now somewhere is the number three option in the true half back role (I'd say Guyton is three if it means the hard yard and Stephens is number three for all around half back duty.) He has very good vision and does a great job of finding and breaking through the seam, with big play potential and gives A&M a solid number three when he can keep the ball off the ground.

Though he's established himself this off-season as primarily a slot receiver set to have a break out year, Ryan Swope is flat out dangerous with the ball in his hand and I can see him getting the ball out of the backfield in certain situations. As Sherman has stated, "They will try to get Swope the ball as much as they can as he's a real playmaker for this team." He was listed as a dual guy (RB/WR) last season and while he's primarily a receiver but don't be surprised if you see some different looks this season where Swope comes out of the backfield.

Newcomers

Ben Malena is a squatty back with great vision, balance and is patient in letting his running lanes open. Once he sees what he wants, he makes his cut and he really shoots the gap well. Like most good backs, he is elusive and seldom allows defenders a clean shot at him. He has great hands out of the backfield and is a willing and able blocker when called on to hang back against the pass rush. On the downside, he has adequate speed but will not run away from defenders and needs to work on keeping the ball off the ground. Also entering his first fall camp is Mister Jones who A&M coaches were able to land out of Colorado. At 6' 2" 210, he is put together amazingly well for such a young running back and is very powerful. Jones hits the hole hard, runs through arm tackles, and provides a very dependable option in short yardage situations. Though not a shifty back he has great in line speed for his size. He will be given an early look at linebacker but given what he brings to the table in short yardage situations and the fact he'll be very green on the defensive side of the ball, it's very possibly he'll end up back at running back. The young man is pretty laidback and while not overly enthused about playing an unfamiliar spot on defense is showing a good team attitude and more than willing to do what the staff feels is best for him and the team.

Fullback
Though the A&M offensive attack doesn't utilize the fullback spot often it is a piece of the puzzle and bears mentioning. There are several true candidates for the spot including Anthony Vela and Andrew Wolridge. Wolridge was moved from linebacker to a situational role at defensive tackle last season as an interior pass rushing specialist. He has good burst, pad level, leg drive and motor but a lot of that is cancelled because he lacks strength up top (for consistent line play) and his handwork is also limited due to his short reach. He initially was getting a look at FB this off-season, then got another look at NT during most of the spring (and he actually was doing fairly well for himself) but after spring camps conclusion, the staff felt he'd be better off plying his trade at fullback. This spring the tight ends were also getting into the act much like Jamie McCoy at H-Back (hybrid TE/FB) last year. Kenny Brown, Huston Prioleau, Tommy Dorman and Michael Lamothe got reps out of the backfield and actually did quite well running the ball. It also stands to reason that some of our new power-backs or possibly a back like Guyton or even Jay Tolliver may find themselves lined up at fullback in certain situations.

Running Back Overall

All of the A&M skill positions are loaded and it's no different at halfback. The Aggies have two HB's who could start anywhere in the conference (and just about any program in the country for that matter), another back that can fill their role without giving up too much ground, and three others who give them extremely strong short yardage options.

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