Welcome back to our 2018 Football Season Preview. In this installment, we're tackling the Tailback position group. To view our preview schedule and read already-completed pieces, click here.
Ever since I started watching Virginia football roughly 15 years ago, the Cavaliers have always had good running backs. My first few years featured the Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman duo. Those two were succeeded by the likes of Cedric Peerman, Mikell Simpson, Perry Jones, Kevin Parks, and Taquan Mizzell.
In those footsteps, Jordan Ellis became the top running back last season with mixed success. While it’s fair to say Virginia didn’t have the offensive personnel or play-calling commitment to establish a dangerous run game, Ellis also didn’t give the coaching staff any reason to emphasize the rushing attack any more than they already were. Ellis certainly had nice stretches, closing out wins against both Duke and North Carolina with impressive heart and effort. But his longest carry was only 25 yards, and his lack of both top-end speed and shiftiness limited the plays where he could be effective.
That was with Kurt Benkert under center, a pocket passer that the staff was careful not to expose to big hits given his injury history and the lack of depth behind him. Now with the dual-threat Bryce Perkins emerging as the starter, the ground game will look dramatically different with newfound options to run the football. Spring practice featured the traditional handoffs, but also pitches and quarterback options. Needless to say, this opens up new reasons for optimism for this running back group.
Returning nearly all contributors from last season along with some more experienced underclassmen, Virginia must take advantage of the opportunity to improve its ground game in 2018.
Daniel Hamm, and that’s it. While there is a changing of the guard at quarterback and noticeable turnover at receiver, the running backs remain relatively unchanged from last season. Hamm, a fifth-year senior a year ago, played in all 13 games, starting five. His role as a ball carrier was limited, amassing 99 yards on just 26 carries for the season, including a touchdown against UConn. Hamm was valuable on screens in Steve Fairchild’s offense, but that hasn’t been a big part of Robert Anae’s game plans since he took over. Hamm’s 26-yard touchdown reception against Miami was his biggest highlight of last season.
Everyone else. Specifically, senior Jordan Ellis, junior Chris Sharp, and sophomores Lamont Atkins, PK Kier, and Jamari Peacock.
Ellis was the unquestioned bell-cow last season, leading the team in attempts (215), yards (836), and touchdowns (six). However, at just 3.9 yards per carry and a meager long of 25 yards, the rushing attack lacked explosiveness, and down the stretch, consistency. Ellis is a tough runner with the desire and will to keep his legs churning, but the rushing attack left something more to be desired.
However, there was not much production out of the rest of the running backs, either, as the next two leading rushers were actually wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed with 182 and 112 yards, respectively. Sharp, Kier, and Atkins pitched in a combined 82 yards. Neither Kier nor Atkins saw much meaningful playing time aside from special teams, while Sharp botched his opportunity with a lost fumble at the start of the third quarter against Virginia Tech, which led to the game’s lone touchdown.
Jordan Ellis - Senior - 5-11, 215
Chris Sharp - Junior - 6-1, 195
Lamont Atkins - Sophomore - 5-11, 200
PK Kier - Sophomore - 5-11, 225
Jamari Peacock - Sophomore - 6-1, 230
After bringing in three tailbacks in last year’s freshman class, the Cavaliers sat out the 2018 class, not gaining a commitment from any running backs. The only new face will be Wayne Taulapapa, who joins the roster after serving a two-year Mormon mission.
It has to be Jordan Ellis. As mentioned above, although he’s neither the strongest nor the fastest of his peers, he has the respect of his teammates and reportedly had a very strong spring. Ellis stands to benefit from sharing the backfield with new dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, who if deployed effectively, could open up newfound running lanes for the fifth-year senior tailback.
Look for a heavy dose of read option plays, where Perkins has the option to keep the ball and stretch the play outside or hand to Ellis up the middle. If Perkins establishes himself as a legitimate running threat, those inside lanes will get wider and wider for Ellis as the season progresses. Ellis is the logical choice to get the bulk of the carries, and as such, he’ll once again lead Virginia’s ground attack.
Lamont Atkins. Sharp, despite his speed and explosion, plays with a loose grip on the football and has shown a tendency to put the ball on the turf. That’s how you find yourself on the bench. Meanwhile, Jeff White wrote a piece in April that quoted Bronco Mendenhall describing Kier as the “heir apparent” and “cut in a similar mold” to Ellis. So while Kier might be leading the unit in rushing next season, he likely won’t overtake Ellis this year.
Process of elimination gets us back to Atkins, but he also has the unique skillset to carve out a role that neither Sharp nor Pier fit. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Atkins has a smaller frame and also a little more speed and wiggle to his game than any of his other backfield comrades. Albeit in a limited sample size, he reminds me a lot of Perry Jones. If Robert Anae chooses to stretch running plays laterally, Atkins could be more adept than Ellis of finding cutback lanes. Atkins also has good hands and can be a threat out of the backfield as a receiver.
Make no mistake – Ellis will lead this group and could again consume 80+% of the carries. However, Atkins certainly has the ability and skill to play his way onto the field and carve out a unique role.
A Stab at the UofR Game Depth Chart
This has all of the makings of a very average position group in 2018. You know what you’re getting in Ellis, and we simply haven’t seen enough of Atkins, Pier, or Peacock to have an idea of their upside or how Anae will utilize them in his game plan. And after the backbreaking fumble against Virginia Tech, I’m not ready to give Sharp any benefit of the doubt.
So that leads us back to essentially where we were last season, only this time with the wild card element of how Bryce Perkins will affect the ground game. Presumably, the running game will open up with stretch plays, pitches, and motioning receivers like Zaccheaus and Reed, who will also touch the football out of the backfield. But will Ellis be able to break out any long gains through a confused defense? Will Atkins provide any home-run hitting ability?
All we know is Ellis will take the majority of the carries and churn out the tough three and four-yard carries, just like he did last season. Hopefully there will be more to get excited about in 2018.