Thursday, August 25, 2011

Position Breakdown 2011: Running Backs

Returning Lettermen: Robbie Rouse, A.J. Ellis, Michael Harris
Newcomers: Darryl Cash, Dillon Root
Lost: Tracy Slocum

Robbie Rouse: Back He Comes to Save the Day!
Jr, 5-7, 185
San Diego (Madison HS)

Those who doubted Robbie Rouse last season, saying he was too small to be the featured back and absorb a full season of hitting, were authoritatively silenced. Rouse led Fresno State with 1,129 yards and 8 touchdowns (5.5 yards per carry) and proved to be one of the top backs in the WAC if not the nation. Though he’s short in stature, Rouse can be a physical, heads-up runner with his stocky, powerful frame (part of the reason the band plays the “Mighty Mouse” theme every time he makes a big play). But even more key to Rouse’s ability is his elusiveness. Rouse has immense experience for a player just going into his junior season, and has entrenched himself as the starter, while continually developing into a team leader. The well-spoken, determined junior exemplifies Bulldog Football and has shown more progress in his receiving abilities during fall camp. Rouse was already an above average pass blocking back, meaning he can be on the field in a variety of game situations. That said, he might get fewer carries than last season based on the addition of a brand new weapon in the backfield.

Milton Knox: Two Knoxes are Better than One
Jr, 5-9, 210
Van Nuys (Birmingham Senior HS/UCLA)

If teammate Robbie Rouse is the WAC’s best running back, newcomer Milton Knox might be its second best. Knox’s high school credentials outweigh any of his other teammates. Parade All-American. USA Today All-American. Four-star recruit. LA Times back of the year. The list goes on for the much ballyhooed prospect who originally signed with ucla before transferring to Fresno State and sitting out last season. But it was clear even last year in practice Knox is a special talent. He’s a couple inches taller than Rouse, but is also stocky and physical with speed. In Fresno State’s fall camp last season, no one had more impressive runs, and that was the case this year as Knox seemingly broke at least one big run (or more) per practice. Whether Rouse or Knox is the team’s leading rusher simply depends on who gets more carries. Rouse is more proven – Knox had just 134 yards as a redshirt freshman at ucla – but all Knox needs is the opportunity. There’s no doubt he’s capable of being a 1,000-yard rusher at this level, and having a guy who hits the hole hard and can put game-breaking moves on defenders will be a great benefit for the Bulldogs. Knox saw some time in wildcat formations at ucla and has spent a lot of time practicing the same in Fresno State’s hound packages.

A.J. Ellis: Weightlifting Does a Body Good
Jr, 5-11, 195
San Jose (Andrew Hill HS)

A.J. Ellis, the team’s slashing back and best receiver out of the backfield, made himself known early last season with a 165-yard outburst at utah state. But an injury derailed his momentum as he finished with 281 yards and 3 touchdowns on the year. Ellis noticeably hit the weights hard in the offseason, working to better condition his body for the grind an upper echelon running back takes at the highest level of college football. His upper body now looks more like former Fresno State star Ryan Mathews than the Ellis of old. Mathews put in the same offseason weight room work leading up to his junior season to protect against injury and ended up as the nation’s leading rusher. The same might not hold true for Ellis, who will battle for carries with two other very good backs, but he’ll definitely play a large role on the team. Ellis is the best option in many shotgun formations, especially on passing downs. He had 13 catches for 88 yards and 2 TDs last season, and he also should be harder to take down with his improved strength.

Michael Harris: Harris Ready to Get Interactive
Jr, 5-11, 200
Chino Hills (Chino Hills HS)

The talented Michael Harris already seemed frustrated at times last year with his lack of playing time, and has just as much competition this time around. His level of mental toughness and determination to keep fighting to get on the field will determine how many carries he gets. Harris showed up to fall camp looking a bit more explosive and faster than in 2011, when many thought he could emerge as a featured back. He’s still got the talent to go off for 100 yards on a given night, which is a good problem to have if you’re the Fresno State coaching staff. Harris finished with 101 yards and 2 TDs on 27 carries last year and had a big impact on special teams.

Daryl Cash: ‘Dogs Newest Play Call is Straight Cash Homie
Fr, 5-10, 190
Pomona (Diamond Ranch HS)

Perhaps the biggest surprise during spring game, at least offensively, was walk-on back Darryl Cash. Where’d this guy come from? A bowling ball of a rusher, Cash had a 20-yard touchdown run in the Spring Game. How unknown was he at the time? He was referred to as “Darren” on the news release after the scrimmage. Cash didn’t stand out as much in fall, but that wasn’t expected with A.J. Ellis and Michael Harris returning from injuries that kept them out all of spring camp. Still, he’s a guy who could make an impact in the next year or two – a walk-on to keep an eye on.

Jerry Kelly: This Walk-on Doesn't Do Much Walking
So, 5-7, 170
Lancaster (Paraclete HS)

Speaking of walk-ons to watch for, Jerry Kelly had quite a Spring Game of his own with a 51-yard touchdown scamper, the longest of the scrimmage. Kelly is the team’s smallest back, but has showed the spirit and effort to fight for a spot on the team. He’s also shown flashes of big-play ability in scrimmage situations, but hasn’t faced first-string defense.

Dillon Root: Digging in for the Future
Fr, 6-0, 180
Visalia (Redwood HS)

It’s just as clear now as it was the first day of fall camp – Dillon Root has a long way to go to adjust to big-time college football. Pat Hill gave him some personal one-on-one instruction during drills on the opening day of fall camp, and Root was responsive. But his footwork and fluidity are far behind the more developed backs who have been in the program longer. Though Hill says Root is the fastest back on the team, his game speed is nowhere near Rouse, Knox, Ellis or Harris. And his sleight build will need a lot of work to become the sturdy back the Bulldogs think he can be – he even drew a few Mathews comparisons around signing day.

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