In football depth, especially quality depth, might be the one of the most important factors in the success of a team during any given season. After all, football is a violent sport that lends itself to players being injured. The level of attrition can be quite high and chances are key players will miss a down, series or even games due to health issues. That's why UNC roster of running backs constitutes a big plus heading into the 2014 season.
Last season marked a rebuilding of sorts for the rushing attack. Gio Bernard, who rushed for over 1200 yards in 2012, was in the NFL leaving Larry Fedora to find a new ball carrier out of the backfield. Heading into the season there were plenty of candidates. Romar Morris and A.J. Blue, who combined for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games mostly playing behind Bernard, returned. UNC added freshmen backs Khris Francis and T.J. Logan to the roster giving the Tar Heels a plethora of choices. Logan was injured early in the season but returned to play nine games and rush for 533 yards and score four touchdowns. Logan was also UNC's best rusher per carry with 5.73 ypc. Blue, Morris and Francis each went for over 200 yards but it was QB Marquise Williams who ended up the team's leading rusher with 536 total yards.
Ideally, that should not be the case this season for Williams' sake(assuming he starts) and the sake of the offense which needs the running backs to carry more of the rushing load. Logan, who showed signs of how productive he could be, will enter the season healthy and with experience under his belt. Last season Logan got 10.3 carries per game and tended to make the most of them. It is unclear how much more usage he will see given how the depth at the position. Conventional wisdom says Logan will see the ball more but how much more remains to be seen. Francis and Morris can both be effective and in an offense predicated on tempo, there will be plenty of need for them to see snaps in an effort to keep fresh legs on the field. Francis and Morris both carried the ball five times per game last season and it wouldn't be surprising if their load this season was similar. This trio provides UNC with quick backs who can run inside or outside and function as speed rushers. In terms of a power rusher, that role could be filled by newcomer Elijah Hood.
The rookie from Charlotte was ranked 10th by Scout among 2014 running backs coming out of high school. Hood is a power runner, the kind of back who can run between his offensive linemen and break tackles. Larry Fedora noted that Hood squatted 605 pounds, something he says he has never seen before from a running back. Fedora went on to praise Hood's grasp of the offense and pass protection blocking. Needless to say there is a bit of a hype wagon for Hood and Fedora is the driver.
In 2013, 98% of UNC's rushing yardage came from five players with Marquise Williams accounting for 28% and the departed A.J. Blue 15% . Overall, UNC's rushing offense was ranked 85th in yards per game nationally and 83rd in yards per carry at just below four yards per attempt. Clearly this is an area UNC needs to improve on significantly heading into 2014. While Williams can be a weapon as a runner, being over one-fourth of the overall rushing attack points to two issues.
The first is too much dependency on yardage that likely comes more from scrambles than a called play. That is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, Williams had a knack for making chicken salad out of you know what. On the other hand, it isn't predictable yardage. Hanging the offense on "maybe a quarterback can pop off a big run" is not ideal. Yes, it's still nice to have those plays but those plays should be in addition to what the rushing attack does not making up for the lack of running back production. The second problem is the lack of production from a position that is primarily responsible for that type of yardage. If the running backs aren't producing then running plays are wasted, the ball isn't being moved reliably on early downs and too many third and long situations come into play.
For UNC to be successful, ball carriers not playing quarterback simply must do more. In 2013 Logan, Hood, Francis and Morris combined for more than the 1363 yards which is respectable until you consider, Gio Bernard ran for 1228 yards in 2012 by himself. In addition to that, Blue and Morris chipped in over 800 yards pushing the Heels to 23rd nationally in yards per carry and 33rd in yards per game. Also in 2012, UNC got very little from the quarterback position in terms of rushing yards.
While no one player is likely going to match Bernard's 2012 production, as a group of players, Logan, Francis, Morris and Hood need to come close to matching and possibly exceeding the 2012 team from the running back position. Obviously the play on the offensive line had a role in the lack of production last season and is a factor this season also. Holding calls in 2013 were particularly vexing and nixed some perfectly good runs out of the backfield. Assuming the offensive line can correct that area of weakness and do a decent job opening the holes, UNC has the talent in the backfield to produce an effective rushing attack.