Know Thy Team 2011: Running Backs

It is not often that Purdue rushes more than its opponents, but that is what happened last year. As a team, we rushed for 2,187 yards and 12 touchdowns while we gave up 2,037 yards and 20 TDs. There were a variety of reasons for this. First, the passing offense was putrid. Second, Rob Henry did a good job of running for his life. From the actual running backs we didn't get a lot of help.

Ralph Bolden, a second-team all-Big Ten pick in 2009, didn't play a down. Dan Dierking was a warrior and played through a variety of injuries that included everything short of West Nile virus. Al-Terek McBurse had a chance to step forward and play to his potential but he ended up being a colossal disappointment against everyone except Western Illinois. Keith Carlos had a big game against Michigan State, but graduated.

We enter 2011 with a lot of promise at the position, but last year's top ballcarriers are all gone. Dierking and Carlos graduated with 844 yards between them. McBurse disappeared into the ether with D.B. Cooper and the real killers O.J. was searching for. Antavian Edison can hopefully move back to receiver as opposed to playing at running back by necessity.

Form the early camp reports the running game is moving the ball very well. Bolden appears to be strong and Akeem Shavers has emerged as a solid backup if not a starter. I don't care if the running game is what takes us to victory. If we have to rely on them as the passing game develops, then so be it. We at least look like it can be productive so far.

Starter: Ralph Bolden - Jr.

Career stats: 963 yards, 9 TD's rushing. 23 catches, 279 yards, 2 TD's receiving

Most of Bolden's numbers came during his explosive 2009 season, when his first carry was a 75+ yard TD run. He finished the first two weeks of the 2009 season with 357 yards rushing, 65 yards receiving, and five total touchdowns. He didn't top 100 yards again after the Oregon game, but his 98 yard rushing and 38 yard receiving performance with three touchdowns at Michigan powered our first win at the Big House in 43 years.

My concern about Ralph is that his biggest games have come against pretty bad defenses. The best defense he shredded was Oregon, but the Ducks' defense is only tasked with holding teams under 35. He showed he can be a capable receiver out of the backfield and he is elusive in open space, but I don't know if he is a tough 3-4 yards every carry between the tackles type of ball carrier.

It will still be very nice to have him back simply because of his explosiveness. We're going to be careful with him because of the knee injury, but as long as he can make it through the season he gives us a weapon we lacked last year.

Top Backup: Akeem Shavers - Jr.

Career Stats: 450 yards, 3 TDs (JuCo)

Shavers is a little bit bigger of a back than Bolden, but he also has sheer speed that makes him explosive. He got to go through spring practice as the #1 back, which is a good thing because I could see him becoming running back 1B to Bolden's 1A. I think the two may end up splitting carries because of Shavers' ability and Bolden's injury concerns.

Had McBurse returned (and had he been effective) Shavers would be a nice luxury as a change of pace back, but instead he needs to be an immediate impact guy like Jaycen Taylor. Bolden and Shavers could easily form a very effective running game like Taylor and Kory Sheets were.

Fullback: Jared Crank - Sr. (5)

Career stats: 91 yards, 1 TD rushing. 4 catches, 31 yards, 1 TD receiving

Crank has not had huge numbers, but he has been a very effective fullback, especially in blowing open holes for Bolden in 2009. Look at some of Bolden's big runs and you'll see Crank out in front plowing the road for him. In 2009 we ran I-formation more than we did in all 12 years of the Tiller era, and it was incredibly effective.

Crank has also shown he can be effective in the rare time he gets the ball. He had a nice 36-yard TD against Toledo last year and a touchdown catch against Indiana in 2009. He can either be a short yardage back or make the Shavers/Bolden combo better in short yardage

Fullback #2/Running back #3: Reggie Pegram - So.

Career stats: 7 yards

Pegram was forced to play last year on special teams, then a little at running back because of the injury issues. He comes into 2011 as one of our more experienced backs with a leg up on getting some carries behind Bolden and Shavers. He is bigger still than both Shavers and Bolden, and he's probably more of a power back than a speed back. I'm going to go to the wayback machine and bring up a name that will instantly make everyone smile when I compare Pegram to him: Steve Ennis.

Ennis played in 2000 as the primary short-yardage back for those Drew Brees teams. He only had 96 yards in 2000, but he was a short yardage specialist with 8 touchdowns and who knows how many first downs. I would love to see Pegram become this type of back, especially since we continually struggle in short yardage situations. Ennis was an expert at getting those two yards we absolutely needed. If we were on the goal line it was his time to come in because he was an almost automatic six points from a yard out.

The Freshmen: Akeem Hunt, Brandon Cottom, Doug Gentry

Each of these guys is promising in their own ways. Cottom is absolutely huge for a running back at 6'4" 255. He has some Ennis potential too based on his sheer size, but he'll probably redshirt this year unless we need him. Hunt and Gentry are both more likely speed backs, with Hunt having some Bolden potential at 5'9" 175. We should expect them to redshirt as well unless needed.

Deep reserve Scholarship guys:

Gavin Roberts (Jr.) Derek Jackson (Jr.)

Both of guys are transfers over from the defense and have yet to have a truly defined role within the offense. Jackson was at fullback all of last year and saw his first career action on special teams. Originally a linebacker, he is behind Crank at fullback officially as the #2 guy there, but Pegram seems to be moving into that #2 fullback role.

Roberts was a defensive back his first two years at Purdue and had two tackles in 2009. Since moving to running back he hasn't played at all.

Walk-Ons:

Kurt Freytag (So.), Devin Hill (Fr.)

Hill comes in as a true freshman from the same high school as Jared Sullinger, while Freytag was an effective fullback at Carmel. Both of them are probably scout team guys at best for now, and will only likely see action in the biggest of blowouts.

Special Mention: Sean Matti (Sr. 5)

Matti's time at Purdue has been covered extensively this summer since his passing in early July. He was the personification of what it means to be a hard worker in practice, and had he not passed he likely would have been rewarded some time this season with his first career carry. This is Sean's season, with the team dedicating their effort to his memory.

Final Analysis:

I am very excited about the running game because I think it can be productive enough to carry the day while the passing game develops. We open the season with three straight games that are very winnable. In that time the winner of the quarterback derby will be able to develop while Bolden and Shavers can work moving the chains with consistency. Yes, we ran for a lot of yards last year, but we were never able to generate the consistency needed to sustain drives. It seemed like we didn't have much trouble breaking the big runs, but getting the 3-4 yard runs needed to keep drives alive was tough.

We're healthier at the position than we have been since 2009. There is plenty of talent there too. That should pay some huge dividends.

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