Orlando, Fla. - Losing a talented player, no matter the position, stings. With Bentavious Thompson no longer on the UCF roster, there’s one less possible running back for Head Coach Gus Malzahn to choose from during any particular game day. Coach Malzahn, during the Media Day press conference, announced that Thompson would no longer be with the program. Now the Knights must adjust without a quality veteran running back.
More specifically, the Knights will now replace three running backs from last season with Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson also departing after being seniors last fall. That’s a lot of carries and a lot of yards lost, and that’s not just part of the situation.
There are three areas that new and/or inexperienced running backs typically struggle. From the remaining UCF running backs, the following categories could determine which player(s) earn the bulk of the carries and playing time.
The most important player on the field, regardless of his talent level or experience, is the quarterback. There’s no disputing this fact; even a run-first offense like Wisconsin will be provided the best chance to win games with a quarterback that’s gone through extreme amounts of practice time throwing the football with his wide receivers to gain a rhythm with those same wide receivers.
It’s hard to even place into words how many hours away from traditional practice time signal callers and wide receivers go through. It’s the same passing route, hundreds of times [sic], to make sure it’s picture perfect. In short, no two positions are more connected than quarterback and wide receiver, and it’s because of those ridiculous amounts of hours throwing the football. Not to mention, studying film and understanding the nuances of opposing defenses, too.
Now, when a running back fails to block an oncoming blitzing linebacker, and that linebacker plows into the quarterback and he’s subsequently injured, that’s when a team’s season often goes into turmoil. Running backs must block at a high level no matter their skill level to run the football. With that, UCF lost three good running backs that were already trained on pass protection.
Whomever steps into the starting role for the Knights, one can bet he’s good in pass protection. Obviously Dillon Gabriel is not replaceable. Even if he was a mediocre quarterback but was expected to start, he would be nearly impossible to replace because there’s no way to replicate all that lost time during the summer between quarterback and wide receivers. Replacing a starting quarterback is difficult, and even more difficult during a college football season.
This category is short and sweet. Drop the pigskin, lose playing time. Technique and mental toughness usually provide running backs with the best chance to keep defenders from stripping the football. Still, it’s commonplace to see running backs hold the football like a loaf of bread running through the second level (linebackers) of a defense. That’s when fumbles typically occur.
To be honest, it’s not much more than that. Turnovers cost teams points on the scoreboard and chances to win football games. From fall camp, whichever running back(s) consistently holds onto the football will be in better position to play during games.
Chemistry with the Offensive Line
Certain running backs just have a flow with their respective offensive line. It’s not a finite point, but subjective and mental. Just like with pass protection and ball security, the running back(s) that display the best chemistry with the offensive line will hold a better chance of earning game action. It’s more than just toting the football, however.
Chemistry also extends to the screen game, as well as with carrying out play-action fakes and helping with the blocking as noted above. A running back’s job, essentially, is to distract a defense and/or help block someone more often than actually running the football. That’s why being in sync with an offensive line matters. Now, a few predictions about the running backs that remain on the UCF roster.
There’s no time for spilled milk. It’s next man up. There could be a bell cow running back emerging during the month of August and that would be fine. The opportunity for a running back by committee approach also holds a distinct possibility of transpiring. Bottom line, either approach works. The details will come to light during fall camp and during the early portion of the 2021 season. There are a few good bets for specific roles, however, and that much has been known for a while.
UCF has speed like Johnny Richardson or RJ Harvey that can hit the gas and run by defenders. One or both of these young men could be used at running back and in the slot. There’s also incoming Auburn transfer Mark Antony-Richards that possesses the frame to power through blockers and still reach the perimeter and score after a long run. Another transfer, Isaiah Bowser, is another bigger running back and also possesses the experience of playing three seasons in the Big 10 for Northwestern. Look for Richards and Bowser to be the inside runners that loosen up the defense so that Gabriel can take more shots down the field to wide receivers like Jaylon Robinson or Ryan O’Keefe.
Best bet, Coach Malzahn will go with the running back(s) that practice well, keep Gabriel upright, and consistently completes his assignment play after play. With that in mind, here are the three players that Inside The Knights believes will be the running backs with the most carries by the end of September.
Richards, Richardson, and Harvey, in no particular order, represent the best bets to be on the field when the Knights play Boise State this fall. Look for the Knights to go with a running back by committee approach for at least a couple of games because there’s ample talent still on the roster despite losing three quality running backs from the 2020 roster.
What’s interesting is that the running back talent extends beyond those three players. It’s still possible that one or two other running backs earn carries. All of the predictions aside, fall camp will be the trial for each of the UCF running backs. In roughly three weeks, there should be some separation between at least two of the UCF running backs from other running backs.