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February 21, 2011

Monday with Mike: RB, WR battles in 2011

Last week, we spotlighted 10 intriguing quarterback competitions during spring practice.

This week, we'll look at five intriguing battles at running back and another five at wide receiver. By no means is this an all-inclusive list.

The buzz: It's bad enough that 1,695-yard rusher Jordan Todman is gone a year early to the NFL. But last week, Robbie Frey, his backup last season and the guy thought to be the leading contender for the starting job this fall, decided to transfer to Division II Kutztown (Pa.) for his final season of eligibility and to get his master's degree. That means the leading returning rusher is D.J. Shoemate, who ran for 115 yards last season, his first at UConn after transferring from USC. But Shoemate didn't touch the ball in the final nine games of the 2010 season. The other holdovers are senior-to-be Jonathan Jean-Louis, who doesn't have a carry in his career, and redshirt freshman Lyle McCombs. McCombs was indefinitely suspended in January after being arrested for marijuana possession. UConn signed two running backs earlier this month, two-star prospects Max DeLorenzo and Deshon Foxx. Todman was a two-star prospect, as well. New coach Paul Pasqualoni and his staff also are searching for a starting quarterback. UConn was a run-oriented team under former coach Randy Edsall, but the strongest group of offensive returnees for the Huskies for the 2011 season is their wide receivers. It looks as if it could be a long fall for the Huskies, who were the Big East's BCS representative in 2010.
The buzz: Stevan Ridley surprisingly decided to turn pro a year early, and while he certainly wasn't an elite back, he was a strong between-the-tackles runner who finished with 1,147 yards and 15 TDs last season. Sophomores-to-be Michael Ford and Spencer Ware would look to be the leading contenders to take over the feature back role for the Tigers, who also have an issue at quarterback. Sophomore Alfred Blue also will be in the mix, and true freshman Kenny Hilliard, a four-star prospect, already is enrolled; one of Hilliard's uncles, Dalton, and a cousin, Ike, both played in the NFL. Ware had his coming-out party in the Cotton Bowl, rushing for 102 yards on just 10 carries. Ford had spent most of the season as Ridley's backup and had 244 yards and three scores. Blue ran for 101 yards. Ware and Blue are "big" backs, while Ford is more of a slasher type. LSU's offensive backfield is one of the more interesting stories nationally this spring. The talent definitely is in place at tailback; it's just up to the coaches to determine the pecking order. That's not necessarily so at quarterback. Returning starter Jordan Jefferson is coming off a miserable season, and JC transfer Zach Mettenberger, while talented, still is an unknown quantity. That means it won't be a surprise if the coaches decide to lean heavily on a solid collection of tailbacks this fall.
Oregon State
The buzz: The Beavers didn't go to a bowl with star RB Jacquizz Rodgers; what kind of offense are they going to have without him? Rodgers had 256 carries for Oregon State last season; backup Ryan McCants had four. McCants started three games in 2008, including two when Rodgers was injured. He's a more physical runner but lacks top-end speed. The other holdovers to watch are Jordan Jenkins and Jovan Stevenson, who redshirted last season with a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Malcolm Marable and true freshman Terron Ward - who grayshirted last fall and enrolled last month -- have the same body types as Rodgers (i.e., they're short guys, with good speed), but if either emerges as the feature back, it would be a surprise. In the fall, two other true freshmen, three-star prospects Malcolm Agnew and Storm Woods, arrive, and coach Mike Riley has said both will be "bona-fide contenders" for the starting job. Riley has been able to count on big-time production from his tailbacks throughout his tenure in Corvallis, so it makes sense to give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, QB Ryan Katz has some work to do, and if the rushing attack doesn't come around, the Beavers could find themselves at home for the holidays again this season.
The buzz: Leading rusher Cody Johnson, a 250-pounder ill-suited to be a feature back, returns after rushing for 592 yards and six TDs. But a huge priority for Texas' revamped coaching staff this spring is to make the Longhorns' rushing attack something to be feared, not pitied. Truthfully, while Texas has gotten its pick of in-state backs, it has made the wrong picks. That means coaches are sifting through guys better-suited to be backups. Freshman Malcolm Brown arrives over the summer, and the job would seem to be his to lose. Meanwhile, holdovers Johnson, Foswhitt Whittaker, D.J. Monroe and Traylon Shead better take advantages of their chances this spring to impress new coordinator Bryan Harsin, who arrives from Boise State. Forget all the talk about Boise employing a finesse offense; the idea behind the Broncos' attack was to run downhill, then let QB Kellen Moore go to work. Texas also has a new offensive line coach in former Georgia assistant Stacy Searels, whose task is to make the Longhorns more physical up front. If Texas' rushing attack again is stuck in the mud, Longhorns coaches will be cringing because that means they'll have to rely on QB Garrett Gilbert to make plays and win games.
Virginia Tech
The buzz: The Hokies lost two backs early to the NFL in Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, who combined for 1,331 yards and 20 TDs last season. The new feature back is going to be David Wilson, a 200-pound junior. He was third on the team in rushing with 619 yards and five TDs. But depth could be an issue. Sophomore Tony Gregory had carries in four blowout wins last season and ran for 102 yards. He's the only other player on the roster who played tailback last season. FB Josh Oglesby, a 211-pounder, has played tailback in the past, and if Gregory struggles, Oglesby could change positions again. Three-star prospect Michael Holmes was the only running back signed in this recruiting cycle, and he arrives in the summer. Virginia Tech returns four starting offensive linemen, meaning Wilson -- and whoever is the No. 2 tailback -- should have room to run. But the Hokies also are breaking in a new quarterback, Logan Thomas. His passing ability is a question heading into spring ball, and his proficiency as a thrower ultimately will play a role in how much room there is to run this fall.
The buzz: Alabama lost starting QB Greg McElroy, leading rusher Mark Ingram and stud WR Julio Jones. Even without Ingram, the rushing attack is going to be fine with Trent Richardson and four returning starting offensive linemen. Expect Tide coaches to ask new starting QB A.J. McCarron to be a game manager. That leaves wide receiver as the big question mark for the Tide's offense. Jones caught more than twice as many passes as any other receiver on the roster last season, and he also had twice as many yards and twice as many TD receptions as any other wide receiver. Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze combined for 70 catches, 1,013 yards and six TDs last season; Jones had 78, 1,133 and seven. Jones commanded double teams, which obviously meant more room for other receivers and for the running game. Is either Hanks or Maze a legit No. 1 receiver? Will opponents have to double team either of them? Redshirt freshman DeAndrew White will get plenty of opportunities this spring to prove he's also in the running to be the go-to receiver. While the Tide has talent on hand at wide receiver, Jones still is going to be sorely missed, putting pressure on the backs and the line to lead the way.
Boise State
The buzz: The Broncos lost two highly productive wide receivers in Austin Pettis (229 career receptions, for 2,838 yards and 39 TDs) and Titus Young (204-3,063-25). QB Kellen Moore returns, as does 1,260-yard rusher Doug Martin and three-fifths of the starting offensive line. That means coach Chris Petersen and a revamped offensive coaching staff has to find a new go-to receiver and some complementary receivers. Senior Tyler Shoemaker, who had 32 receptions and five TD catches in 2010, looks as if he will take over the No. 1 receiver role and be one of the best receivers in the Mountain West. But no other wide receiver on the roster caught more than 11 passes. The Broncos do make good use of their tight ends in the passing game, but it's vital that two or three more wide receivers emerge during the spring. Mitch Burroughs, Kirby Moore, Chris Potter, Geraldo Hiwat and Aaron Burks look to be the leading contenders. Hiwat made 11 catches last season and has the speed to be a deep threat, while coaches are hopeful Moore -- who was sidelined by a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- can be effective in the slot. Shoemaker spent most of his time in the slot last season, but the Broncos will be better off if he can slide outside and replace Pettis this season.
The buzz: As with Alabama, the Bulldogs lost their star receiver when A.J. Green decided to turn pro a year early. But Georgia also lost its No. 2 receiver, as Kris Durham was a senior. That means the Bulldogs need a whole new pecking order at the position. Green was the Bulldogs' best offensive player last season, and junior-to-be Tavarres King likely gets first crack at Green's old go-to receiver role. King has 47 receptions in two seasons, including 27 last season. No other wide receiver had more than 11. That was junior Marlon Brown, a former four-star recruit who basically has been invisible in his first two seasons (13 total receptions). Rantavious Wooten, Israel Troupe and redshirt freshman Michael Bennett also will get chances to show off this spring. True freshman Chris Conley enrolled early and also will get a chance to make an impact. Malcolm Mitchell was one of the Bulldogs' prime recruits, and while he has a huge upside as a defensive back, he had a great senior season in high school as a wide receiver; he arrives in the summer. Returning TB Washaun Ealey has been indefinitely suspended, which means that Georgia has some work to do this spring to identify some offensive playmakers. QB Aaron Murray and TE Orson Charles have all-league talent, but they need some help.
San Diego State
The buzz: One reason the Aztecs won nine games last season is that they had one of the most productive receiving duos in the nation. Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson combined for 136 receptions for 2,572 yards and 18 TDs, and they caught a combined 355 passes for 5,352 yards and 40 TDs in their careers. The Aztecs aren't going to be able to adequately replace their production. RB Ronnie Hillman is back after rushing for 1,532 yards last season. But QB Ryan Lindley also returns, and he has thrown for 9,537 yards and 67 TDs in his career. A new coaching staff obviously will want Lindley to air it out often, so that makes it vital this spring to come up with a solid rotation at wide receiver. Dominique Sandifer likely gets first dibs at the go-to receiver role after catching 23 passes last season to rank fifth on the team. Dylan Denso, with four catches, is the only other returning wide receiver who had a reception last season. But there are numerous youngsters, such as Ezell Ruffin and Osmond Nicholas, who will get a chance during the spring. In addition, SDSU redshirted four freshman wide receiver last season, and four freshman wide receivers also will arrive over the summer. In Hillman and Lindley, SDSU has two proven offensive weapons, and the Aztecs also have some OK tight ends. While the passing attack is not going to be as good as it was last season, a competent attack would be enough for the Aztecs to finish third in the reconfigured Mountain West.
The buzz: Rebuilding the offensive line is the highest priority, but the new coaching staff can't afford to overlook the passing attack. QB Andrew Luck returns, but who is going to be on the receiving end of his passes? Both starting wide receivers -- Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen -- are gone. Chris Owusu is a proven kick returner, but he must show he has the ability to be a go-to receiver this spring. Others in the mix to be in the rotation are Griff Whalen (no relation to Ryan), Drew Terrell, Jamal-Rashad Patterson and Jemari Roberts. Patterson is a former four-star recruit who might be nearing the end of his time to prove himself. The Cardinal signed three players earlier this month who could end up playing receiver this fall, and it's likely one of them sees time. Stanford will continue to make good use of its tight ends, and the Cardinal might have the deepest group at that position in the nation. Stanford also will continue to rely on the run. Still, with a rebuilt line and Luck's talent, the Cardinal is going to want to throw the ball down the field, so it's imperative that a few wide receivers step up this spring. It's not a stretch to say the passing attack is the difference between again challenging for the Pac-10 title or sliding back to seven or eight wins.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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