Position Preview – Running Back

Welcome to our 2020 Football Season Preview. To view our preview table of contents and read already-completed pieces, click here or on the Series button above.

 

After the graduation of workhorse tailback Jordan Ellis after the 2018 season, the Hoos went through the 2019 season in a bit of a purgatory with respect to the running backs. Playcalling leaned heavily on the passing attack and Bryce Perkins’ elusiveness, leading to one of the lowest RB usage rates in all of power conference football. With a new quarterback under center, one who pointedly will not be the generational Bryce Perkins when it comes to the run game, the Hoos will look to re-emphasize the traditional ground game

(*8/23 – This article, originally run on Tuesday 8/18, has been updated to reflect the announcement that Ronnie Walker’s eligibility waiver was denied by the NCAA and is pending appeal)

Position Coach

Mark Atuaia – VirginiaSports.com Bio

 

Who’s Gone?

Chris Sharp – The fifth year senior graduated this summer, though the converted safety never really cracked the depth chart in his tenure, netting only 14 carries for 52 rushing yards and a touchdown in his career, though occasionally showed promise as a pass catcher, with 3 receiving TDs out of the backfield the last couple seasons.

Jamari Peacock – The very definition of a blocking-specialist fullback in his time at UVA, Peacock had only a handful of career touches from scrimmage, but nonetheless the ironman has appeared in all 40 games over his career, trusted by the staff to lead block for both his tailbacks and his quarterbacks. With his UVA degree in hand, he elected to transfer for his final season, in search of a more traditional tailback role.

PK Kier – The junior tailback, with career totals of 64 carries for 286 yards and a touchdown, elected to leave the team for his senior year. He may look to transfer after finishing his UVA degree this year.

Lamont Atkins – The junior tailback, with career totals of 20 carries for 107 yards, 10 receptions for 73 yards, and one touchdown, elected to leave the team for his senior year. He may look to transfer after finishing his UVA degree this year.

Mike Hollins – The rising 2nd year had a lot of buzz going into last year as a high-ceiling tailback, the MVP of his Louisiana state title team. He got his first work in the W&M blowout and shined, but a couple weeks later coughed up a costly fumble at Miami and was little used the rest of the way. It leaked this week that Hollins was one of five players to opt out of the current season due to the pandemic. We’ll be watching for his return next season, he’s still got his redshirt year to burn.

Seneca Milledge – The rookie speedster, who didn’t have any stats from scrimmage but had made an impact on special teams, was dismissed from the team during the spring.

 

Who’s Back?

Wayne Taulapapa – Junior – 5’9″ 210 lb  – Wayne was the closest thing UVA had to a feature back last season. After going on a 2-year LDS mission straight from high school, Wayne contributed primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2018 before taking over for Jordan Ellis in 2019. With the run game centered on dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, Taulapapa wasn’t given workhorse carry totals, only 116 over 12 healthy games (he sat vs both W&M and Liberty). But while his YPC statistic was pedestrian (4.1), he did demonstrate an impressive nose for the end zone, ranking 4th in the ACC with 12 rushing TDs.

Perris Jones – Sophomore (R) – 5’8″ 175 lb  – Walk-on players rarely make these discussions, but the NOVA product is in a unique position, as the departure of 5 backs off the depth chart, with only two additions (see below, one not even guaranteed to be eligible yet) to offset, leaves this position kind of thin. He’s been a special teams ace thus far in his young career, but it’s not impossible that the 3rd year makes a little noise on the offense as well. He was one of the first players to earn their number, which speaks well for him.

 

Who’s New?

Shane Simpson – Senior – 5’11” 200 lb – The 6th year Towson grad transfer was an FCS 1st Team All American in 2018 before injuries derailed his 2019 season. With FCS’s season dicier than ours, he elected to pursue the FBS route for his final year of eligibility. He’s a very versatile offensive player (to say nothing of his kick return talents, which we’ll address in next week’s special teams breakdown), with an Oz/Smoke ability to either take the handoff, catch swing passes out of the backfield, or motion into the slot as an extra wideout. In 2018, his last fully healthy season, he carried the ball 151 times for 711 yards (4.7 average) for 6 TDs and caught 39 passes for 356 yards and 5 TDs.

 

Ronnie Walker Jr – Junior – 5’11” 210 lb  – The Hopewell, VA native almost chose UVA out of high school in the 2018 recruiting class, picking the Indiana Hoosiers instead, but two years later elected to come back home. In two years with the Hoosiers he tallied 59 carries for 221 yards (3.7 ypc) and 2 TDs, adding 12 catches for 112 yards and an additional TD. Unfortunately the NCAA denied his initial waiver request, and it is pending appeal currently. He’d be an every-down-back type X-Factor if eligible, but hard to bank on the appeal at this point.

 

 

Preseason MVP

Wayne Taulapapa – The easiest way to predict the future is to look at the past, and the past says the staff trusted Taulapapa more than anyone else last season. He jumped veterans Atkins and Kier, he easily held off the buzzy rookie Hollins. He secured the ball, he crossed the goal line. At this early stage of fall practices, he’s the only scholarship running back to have earned his number. Wayne obviously needs to increase his yards-per-carry stats, though there’s an argument much of that needs to be put on the OL and scheme as well. Is he a 1,000 yard candidate? Probably not. But every reason to think he makes modest gains in his per-carry statistics and continues to maintain Anae’s trust.

 

Breakout Candidate

Shane Simpson – It’s arguably cheating to list Simpson since he’s well, the only other eligible scholarship tailback we’ve got. But that’s selling him short. He’s the most versatile threat out of the backfield we’ve had since Smoke and Oz, just as capable of taking the handoff as he is catching the screen, and as one person told us re: his performance in camp to date, he’s a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. It’ll be interesting to see how much usage he gets, if he’s capable of displacing Wayne on traditional 1st and 2nd downs, or if he’s going to be used more as a long 3rd down specialist. But if given the workload, he’s got a chance to show he’s a big a weapon in the ACC as he was at Towson.

 

A Stab at the Opening Day Depth Chart

TB

Wayne Taulapapa (Jr)

Shane Simpson (RS Sr)

 

Grade: C-

 

Final Thoughts

Bryce Perkins had more carries than the entire RB stable combined last year. After two seasons of Robert Anae riding Jordan Ellis as a true workhorse (215 carries each in 2017 and 2018), it was painful to watch the RB usage drop so preciptously this past season, though when you saw what Bryce Perkins could do, you understood. With that said, Perkins is gone and there’s arguably a big need to reestablish a traditional ground game this year. 

So can we? As mentioned above, scheme and OL performance obviously go hand-in-hand with running back performance. Even the best RBs need consistent holes to hit. With Armstrong hypothetically under center, I’m a little optimistic the defenses will give a little more here. During Perkins’ tenure, defenses stacked the box as much as possible, 7 or 8 defenders in many cases, to try and contain the elusive signal caller. And all those defenders in the box, of course, meant defenses were better suited to react to and contain the tradtional ground game as well. Armstrong, by contrast a more traditional gun-slinger, is going to operate often out of a 4-wide shotgun spread, and hopefully will force 5 or 6 defenders to play back in nickel coverage, thereby opening up the box for draw plays.

But man, that depth is just a killer, hence the paltry C- grade, and even that might be generous. Six tailbacks from last year’s roster are gone with only one scholarship running back returning. No freshmen were recruited and only one eligible transfer joins the rotation. Meaning we’re banking on (a) a “workhorse” who saw only 10 carries a game last year for a mere 4.1 ypc, a transfer from the FCS level, and a walk-on who’s never taken a carry from scrimmage. Forget arguing about Bronco’s Big Back / Speed Back distinction; I had to revise the depth chart to just one TB position this year. Every day from here until November we’re going to be holding our breath these two hold up all year, otherwise we’re looking to start converting players from elsewhere on the roster, and that bodes very poorly.

But given that we also return the entire OL and can expect incremental improvement in their blocking, there is reason to be hopeful that as long as Taulapapa and Simpson are healthy we can see improvement this year. It may not be one of the league’s most dangerous rushing attacks, and admittedly there’s a lot of uncertainty at this stage, but it could at least be adequate and able to give some much-needed balance to the passing game.