Louisville football position breakdown: running backs

By on June 26, 2016

By Dalton Ray–

The second week of TLC’s position breakdown for Louisville’s 2016 football team is here. Last week, we took a look at the quarterback position . In week two, we’ll analyze the running back spot.

Under Bobby Petrino, in both tenures, U of L has always used multiple backs. Even when Petrino coached Michael Bush in 2006, one of the best backs in program history, the offense still used Kolby Smith and George Stripling. In the last two seasons, there have been eight different players that have had at least 40 carries on the year that aren’t named Lamar Jackson.

Jackson was the team’s leading rusher last year but the Cards return their top three returning running backs. Louisville has six running backs, four upperclassmen and two incoming freshman. This running back list will not include Reggie Bonnafon and Trey Smith, both can play the running back spot but have been moved to receiver.

Brandon Radcliff, redshirt senior

2015 Stats: 139 attempts, 634 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 7 touchdowns

Radcliff is one of the few remaining players on the team that were recruited by former coach Charlie Strong. In 2014, Radcliff ran for over 700 yards and 12 touchdowns. 2015 was a dip in production for the Miami native and Radcliff only had three games with 70 or more yards. Entering his third year under Petrino, Radcliff is expected led the team in rushing and be a team captain once again.

At 5-foot-9, 215-pounds Radcliff is a strong, powerful tailback that averaged over five-yards per carry in his first two years as a Cardinal. What makes Radcliff so tough to bring down is his low-center mass while running. Once contact is made with the bowling-ball-back, his legs never stop running and he fights the whole way down. His style of running can wear on opposing tacklers.

Radcliff is a workhorse, on and off the field. His problem last year was simply his lack of speed behind a shaky offensive line. Petrino has been impressed with Radcliff so far this offseason.

“Brandon has really improved in the areas he’s needed to, which is catching the ball and pass protecting,” Petrino said.

Radcliff is closing in on being a 2,000-yard career rusher. He currently sits at 1,462 career yards and 20 touchdowns. If Radcliff rushes for 652-yards or more, he will be in the top ten all-time career rushing yards in program history. His 20 career rushing touchdowns places him ninth all-time, 19 away from all-time leader Bush.

Jeremy Smith, junior

2015 Stats: 60 attempts, 270 yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns

2015’s third leading rusher came from their junior college transfer. The nation’s fifth-ranked JuCo back made a good impact with the team last year but like Radcliff, Smith struggled behind the offensive line. Smith is a change-of-pace back compared to Radcliff. Smith is a big and physical back that doesn’t necessarily break-away speed but does have good vision along with great feet.

Smith’s role should be expanded in 2016 and after averaging 4.5 yards per carry, Smith has proven that he can get yards when he has the ball in his hands. One aspect of his game Smith could expand on is developing in the passing game. Even though last year’s quarterback spot wasn’t consistent, Smith only had 19-yards on two receptions all year.

Smith had a great spring game in-which he led the game with over  a 100-yards and two touchdowns. Smith has the ability to lull you to sleep because all of his runs look the same and effortless then he’ll catch you slipping and take advantage. Petrino has said that Smith, “always has the biggest run in every scrimmage we have.” Petrino credited that to his great hips and big body that tacklers bounce off of.

LJ Scott, junior

2015 Stats: 38 attempts, 137 yards, 3.6 yards per carry, 2 touchdowns

Scott is also a Strong recruit and actually came in as a fullback. The junior easily made the transition to running back because of his athleticism and his great footwork. Scott is the most versatile returning back on the roster. Between taking the hand-off in the backfield and catching the ball in open field, Scott is the most flexible back and the best receiving back on the team.

Scott led the running backs last year in most receptions and yards despite touching the ball less than Radcliff and Smith. Petrino said that Scott had a really good spring.

“I think we’ve learned a lot about what LJ can do and how he runs with the football. He’s doing a better job of ‘hugging the wall (offensive line)’ and you can tell he’s noticing that,” Petrino said. “He’s a really good pass protector so he’ll be in a lot on third down and he has really good hands, he’s a great weapon.”

Scott’s biggest roadblock is the two backs listed just before him. Scott’s biggest advantage is that he excels in the area the previous backs don’t, the passing game. To get more field time, Scott will have to make the most of this.

Malin Jones, senior

2015 Spring Game stats: 7 attempts, 67 yards, 8.9 yards per carry, 1 touchdown

Jones came to Louisville as one of the five transfers brought in by Petrino in 2014. After committing to Northwestern in 2012, Jones was suspended “indefinitely” in November of 2013. He joined the Cardinals in the fall of 2014.

Jones hasn’t had much luck as a Cardinal and has been apart of a crowded backfield since being at Louisville. Not only has Jones shared the backfield with the three backs on this list, he’s also been behind Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer. Jones only had one carry last season.

Malik Staples, freshman

Stats: N/A

Staples is coming into Louisville as three-star running back out of Georgia. At 6-foot, 210-pounds Staples is a good sized back but has the ability to be a power-back with above average speed. He is a downhill-runner who runs hard and doesn’t exactly have great speed but does have good acceleration with the ball. Staples is a similar back to Radcliff in his style and effort with the ball.

One of the things Staples will have to improve on, like most incoming frosh, is following his blockers and being a patient runner. Staples will be able to learn a lot from Radcliff as both backs have legs that never stop churning once contact is made. A lot of playing-time may not be on the table in 2016, but Staples will have the chance push for time if he can make progress in the weight room.

Dae Williams,  freshman

2015 high school stats: 267 attempts, 1,673 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 19 touchdowns

Once again we run into another power back. Williams is athletic, big back that runs with swagger and his wide body makes it tough for defenders to get his arms around him. Williams is from Oklahoma and has played against good competition in high school, he has all the physical tools to become a great back. Williams is a smart runner that follows his blockers and is patient with the ball in his hands.

Some of the downside to Williams’ game would be his lack of elusiveness. He is a smooth runner that isn’t afraid of hurdling defenders but almost has heavy feet in terms of being shifty. Williams is a straight-line runner and has the ability to break through defenders coming in high and with arm-tackles. Williams will benefit greatly from a full season in Louisville’s strength and conditioning program. He potentially has the highest ceiling in the group and if Petrino’s staff can untap that potential, Williams can be a special back.

File Photo / The Louisville Cardinal

About Dalton Ray

Sports editor (2016-18) that is technically award winning.

Email: dray@louisvillecardinal.com

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