Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Position Breakdown 2010: Running Backs

Returning: Robbie Rouse, Michael Harris, A.J. Ellis

Newcomers: Tracy Slocum (transfer), E.J. Schexnayder, Milton Knox (transfer), Jerry Kelly (walk-on)
Lost: Ryan Mathews (Chargers), Lonyae Miller (Cowboys), Anthony Harding, Jamal Rashad

Robbie Rouse: Here he comes to save the day
So, 5'7", 185
San Diego (Madison HS)

Robbie Rouse might have the least enviable task of any player -- replacing Ryan Mathews, the nation's top rusher from last season. But while Mathews was wowing the nation with 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns, Rouse was having one of the most impressive true freshman campaigns in recent Fresno State history. Rouse was second on the team, ahead of Cowboys undrafted free agent Lonyae Miller, with 479 yards and 4 touchdowns. The most telling statistic, though, is his 5.8 yards per carry, among the WAC's best. The biggest criticism Rouse faces is his size (in actuality only a lack of height). That's basically a non-factor for the stocky back who has improved speed and strength from a year ago and has shown early signs of a team leader in the making with his will to win.

DaCo on Rouse: How do you not love Robbie Rouse? He loves being a Bulldog. He plays with something to prove every play, practice or game. He has great talent for the position. The list goes on. The hang-up people have is the height, because it's just so out of the norm for someone his size to do what he does. But the kid is a tough son of a gun and he hasn't given anyone a reason to think he won't perform in any role he's given.

FSDogs1 on Rouse: The biggest criticism Rouse faces is his size, but a lot of fans/media fail to differentiate a lack of height from a lack of weight. Rouse has a sturdy, thick frame, and is every bit big enough to be an every-down college back.

Tracy Slocum: Cal schmal, he's always been Bulldog Born
Sr, 5'11", 210
Clovis (Clovis East HS/Cal)

The Bulldog Bounce first broke news early this year that Tracy Slocum was planning to walk-on at Fresno State for his final season of college football. He got the work done in the classroom, the plan came to fruition and now Slocum has skyrocketed up the depth chart to earn first-team carries throughout fall camp. He's the biggest (muscle wise), most experienced back on the team, but also hasn't played for two years. That said, Bulldogs defenders haven't been taking it easy on him during practice reps, where Slocum has been used as a between-the-tackles, physical runner -- a perfect complement to Robbie Rouse's elusive style. The comedic highlight of fall camp came in 11-on-11 drills during an evening practice when Slocum fumbled after a hard hit by S Lorne Bell and DT Cornell Banks and Cornell Banks joked, "Send his a*$ back to Cal!" Slocum has demonstrated he can play a significant role for the Bulldogs this season, though he's yet to show big-play, breakaway ability in fall camp.

DaCo on Slocum: Slocum passes your college running back eyeball test. Additionally, he clearly loves football and is intent on making the most of his last shot. At Cal, Slocum had several runs that were explosive enough to make him an intriguing possibility for this team. The interesting thing with him is that even though he's a senior, he still has a diamond in the rough vibe to him, which means he has the potential to either breakout, fall through the cracks, or an average joe. The talent is there, but he's a wild card.

FSDogs1 on Slocum: Pat Hill was nice enough to offer Slocum a home at Fresno State for his senior year after the former Clovis East star chose Cal out of high school, and Slocum is repaying Hill's favor by working hard. Passing as many units as he did in a short amount of time shows he really wants to be here, and that is the most important thing for a true Bulldog in my book.

Michael Harris: Riddle me this; what role will Harris play?
So, 5'11", 200
Chino Hills (Chino Hills HS)

Possibly the biggest unknown of the Fresno State backfield is Michael Harris, an up and comer who looked like he would be heavily relied upon this season before the emergence of Slocum. Harris has been a standout in scrimmages his first two years in the program and showed up for spring ball noticeably bigger (in a good way). Slocum's presence no doubt impacts the number of touches Harris will get this season, but he still may play a large role in the offense. The key word is "may," because it's tough to gauge just how large a role that will be. Harris didn't outshine the other backs in fall camp, but did look reliable. The amount of playing time he gets could hinge on what he does with his first significant game action of his Bulldogs career.

DaCo on Harris: Here's another guy with great tools for the running back position. He's a well-rounded back, capable of being shifty, speedy or powerful. Problem is, he is too often capable instead of relied upon. If Harris can visually show to coaches that he is hungry to make an impact with the ball in his hands, then he can potentially (a frustrating word in college football) be a monster at running back. He's creeping close to that line in the sand, however, to get to that point.

FSDogs1 on Harris: I would have liked to see more obvious improvement from Harris from last season to this fall camp, but his propensity for making plays in scrimmage situations makes me think he's a "gamer."

A.J. Ellis: We like him even though he's from swampy San Jose
So, 5'11", 180
San Jose (Andrew Hill HS)

The forgotten man of sorts has been A.J. Ellis, but watch for him to be a hidden piece of the Bulldogs' arsenal this season. He's not the every-down back Robbie Rouse will be, but Ellis showed big potential in the first fall scrimmage catching the ball out of the backfield. That's likely to be his niche this season. Any time he's lined up in the backfield in shotgun formation, opposing defenses had better pay a lot of attention to where he's at because he's deadly in the flats and on screen passes. He's the type of athlete the Bulldogs have been compiling all over the field on offense, and it should start to show this year.

DaCo on Ellis: It became a lot more clear as to what the strengths of A.J. Ellis' game are this fall. I developed a craving for him to get the ball in the open field, because when he did, yards would be eaten up. He is a slasher-type back who likes to get to the outside, but his ability as a receiver definitely showed he was tops in the group in that facet. That being said, being so one-dimensional probably won't allow him to flourish as often as he's capable of.

FSDogs1 on Ellis: If Ellis continues to work hard, he'll have a role in this program for the next three years. He offers shiftiness and a receiver-like body at the position that can come in quite handy. But he'll need to improve his pass protection to keep defenses honest when he's in the game.

E.J. Schexnayder: You know he's good 'cause his name is cool
Fr, 5'11", 210
Riverside (North HS)

With Leslie Rogers no-showing for fall camp after not qualifying, E.J. Schexnayder is the only true freshman at the position. And he was projected as a possible immediate impact guy heading into camp. But after seeing Schexnayder take live reps, it's fairly certain he'll need a redshirt year to develop. His first few days of camp were rough, as it was obvious he wasn't used to the fast-paced, physical nature of Fresno State football. But he deserves much respect after his first fall scrimmage performance where he seemed to trust his size more and use it to his advantage, lowering his shoulder and the boom on one run in particular. That's the mentality Pat Hill surely wants to see from the guy projected as a future physical back in a historically physical running game.

DaCo on Schexnayder: Early on in camp, it was obvious Schexnayder would have some maturing to do mentally to reach his potential. But when he's been right, Schexnayder has shown he loves to be the one delivering loud contact, with good balance to go with it. His style of running is testosterone inducing and fits Fresno State's style of play perfectly. He is someone fans should want to thrive in this program, given his strengths and ceiling of talent to fulfill.

FSDogs1 on Schexnayder: Schexnayder has a lot of work to do in protecting the football. Like Tracy Slocum, he showed some fumbling issues in camp, but Schexnayder's looked like they had more to do with how he holds the ball (what should be an easily correctable problem). P.S. is it me or does he resemble Anthony Harding a little bit?

Jerry Kelly: Further helping the Bulldog backfield to resemble Munchkinland
Fr, 5'7", 160
Lancaster (Paraclete HS)

Who's that little guy out there at running back? That was the question being murmered aloud in spring camp when Jerry Kelly arrived as a walk-on. Actually, at that point, there were two guys about the same size. Kelly is the one who stuck. He's not likely to see playing time this year, but he's got solid speed and quickness and will be one to watch as he progresses in the coming years.

DaCo on Kelly: Fresno State has clearly carved a niche for running backs with Clifton Smith, Robbie Rouse, etc. type builds and running styles. Kelly's value comes more in giving the depth of the team quality reps, because he works hard and is reliable to do his job. Still, he does possess a fair amount of talent and is deserving of where he's at.

FSDogs1 on Kelly: Think Robbie Rouse but slimmer and with more finesse. Of course, Kelly isn't gifted with the same talent as Rouse, but with hard work is definitely capable of competing at this level.

Milton Knox: Who wouldn't transfer after seeing what the 'Dogs did to UCLA at the Rose Bowl?

So, 5'8", 210

Van Nuys (Birmingham Senior HS/UCLA)

In a special "just wait 'til next year" synopsis, let's talk Milton Knox, the UCLA transfer and former Parade All-American who has to sit out this season as per NCAA transfer rules. Knox has been nothing short of brilliant in fall camp. He's just a hair taller than Rouse, and has the thick, stocky midsection build of fomer Bulldog Clifton Smith (Buccaneers). He doesn't run in the constant-juke style of Smith, but he's a quick decision maker who likes to get downfield fast, and Knox has been by far the biggest big-play threat at the position all camp. He consistently rumbles for big gains and gets into the secondary if not beyond. At this rate, he'll compete with Robbie Rouse for the starting job in 2011 (hopefully Fresno State's first year in the Mountain West Conference).

DaCo on Knox: There has been only about a two-week sample size to evaluate Milton Knox in person, but that sample was good enough to buy a year's supply and freeze it for next year. Knox clearly has a superior level of vision at the position, and showed additional value in the wildcat and as a pass protector. Although he reached the secondary time after time, Knox didn't appear to have true breakaway speed, although there's no reason to think he doesn't have enough to finish runs with TDs. Really, the only flaw I saw was his tendency to cruise at times during practice, rather than push the practice tempo. Personally, I left camp with the opinion that Milton Knox was the best running back on the roster, which is a testament to his ability rather than a knock on any of the other backs.

FSDogs1 on Knox: It's a head-scratcher right now how Pat Hill will decide to use Knox next season, but it'll be a great problem to have. Rouse and Knox can be used almost interchangeably as the same back but with constant fresh legs. He's without a doubt one of the top two backs on the team right now.

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