Our running game and running back stable is a mess. And that’s likely an understatement. Fixing the running game during the season, for whatever reason, simply wasn’t possible for Dan Mullen and the offense in 2015. There were many different speculations over the cause for the lack of rushing yards for an offense that is traditionally known to run the ball well. Some blame the offensive line, some blame the running backs themselves. Still other attribute the inability to run the ball to the capabilities of the receivers and the dominant passing game with Dak as a possible reason.
But whatever the reason is, it really doesn’t matter. With the offseason here and uncertainty at quarterback staring Mississippi State right in the face, Dan Mullen now has the pressure solely on him to find an answer at running back and fix the running game for whoever takes their reins and lines up behind center this coming season. Let’s walk through the running backs on the roster, shall we?
Many will knock Brandon Holloway as a candidate because of his size. He’s not exactly your stereotypical bruising SEC running back at 5-8 and 160 pounds. But his quickness and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield made him a huge asset this past year with our pass happy offense. Holloway was our leading rusher behind Dak with his 92 carries for 413 yards on the year with no touchdowns. In fact, Holloway had a better year receiving than he did rushing, snagging 33 receptions for 396 yards and 5 touchdowns, with huge games against Kentucky (5 receptions, 98 yards, 1 touchdown), Arkansas (4 receptions, 101 yards, 1 touchdown), and North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl (4 receptions, 78 yards, 2 touchdowns). He’s not an every down back by any stretch of the imagination, but he does provide a spark to the offense when he can get into open space.
Ashton Shumpert, coming into the season, had a lot of promise and hype around him. He had a bit of a breakout performance in a losing effort in Oxford in 2014, where he was the leading rusher for the Bulldogs with 10 carries for 68 yards, out gaining Dak and Josh Robinson by 20 and 24 yards respectively. But the hype around him disappeared as quickly as he fumbled away a touchdown against Southern Miss in our first game of the 2015 season. After that, it felt like his season only spiraled. What few plays of promise he had were met by two or three plays resulting in frustration from the fanbase. He’s still incredibly talented, and still might have a place on the football field even if it isn’t at running back, but his 2015 campaign have left many fans feeling uninspired and concerned whenever he gets the ball. He would have to make huge strides this offseason to regain his confidence so that he can meet his potential.
Malik Dear has received a lot of comparisons to former MSU running back Josh Robinson. And the comparisons aren’t completely unwarranted when one compares their builds. Dear fits the mold of Bowling Ball fairly well at 5-9 220 pounds, only five pounds shorter than Robinson. This season, to the frustration of some fans, Dear’s reps came primarily at receiver, having to sit behind Donald Gray and Gabe Myles for many games before getting much playing time. But Dear, like Holloway, has the ability to make big plays happen once he reaches open field, evidenced with his 52 yard sprint for a touchdown against Texas A&M.
Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee
The final candidates for this job are a pair of running backs that fans have been calling for all season. A pair of three star recruits, Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee did big things in high school, but redshirted once they hit campus. And so, fans waited a year. Of course, it was logical that they redshirt in 2014, as they would save a year of eligibility by sitting behind Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, Ashton Shumpert, and Brandon Holloway. But come 2015, it was their turn for playing time, right? Well, Williams and Lee combined for 343 yards on 66 carries and three touchdowns this past season, with much of that coming in garbage time in big wins. These two young running backs have a lot of potential for MSU, but they have to find a way to stand out and climb through the crowded depth chart to get more carries this season.
None of the above
It’s very possible that in 2016, the running game is the same mess as it was in 2015. The offensive line is still having to replace starters and there’s really nobody new showing up in the backfield to carry the ball. There’s a chance that nothing will radically change this offseason. So, how does the offense compensate for that?
Well, one answer is to keep the scheme the same and air the ball out. You’ve still got a very talented receiving corps this season, headlined by the return of 1,000 yard receiver Fred Ross. Add in Gus Walley, Gabe Myles, Donald Gray, Malik Dear, and even Brandon Holloway out of the backfield, and you’ve got a very potent passing game that could develop.
Another possible answer is a return to the quarterback running game that we’ve seen so often out of Dan Mullen’s offenses. All three of the quarterbacks vying for the job in this quarterback competition are all capable running threats. It’s possible that we see a return to a quarterback running approach, such as in 2013 where Dak Prescott lead the team rushing with 829 yards. Behind him? LaDarius Perkins for 542 yards and Josh Robinson for 459 yards. Going back to Dan’s stint as offensive coordinator for the Florida Gators and you’ll see that Tim Tebow was their leading rusher in 2007 and 2008 and was their second leading rusher in a reserve role in 2006. It’s possible that we see a rushing approach that is similar this upcoming season.
Ultimately, I would expect a running back stable in 2016 that was similar to what we saw in 2015. Holloway and Shumpert have the experience, but there are good reasons to feel excited about and clamor for more carries for Dear, Williams, and Lee. I think a lot of it will depend on the offense that Mullen wants to run this coming year. If he wants to return to more of his spread option roots that incorporates more quarterback running, it’s very likely that whoever wins the quarterback battle gets 10-15 carries a game and any mixture of Holloway/Shumpert/Dear/Lee/Williams gets 25-30 carries a game. I think we’ll see a revolving door at running back. At least until a couple of guys truly prove that they’re head and shoulders above the rest of the competition.