2005 Position Outlook: The Running Backs

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Wali Lundy

Virginia has put forth some its most productive offenses over the past three seasons, scoring 402 points (third-most in a single season), 364 (fourth), and 363 (fifth) from 2002-2004. The running backs have been a big reason for that success, both in the passing game and running game. This year should be no different as Wali Lundy leads a talented but somewhat inexperienced group of RBs into 2005.

UVa’s backs were heavily involved in the short-passing game during Al Groh’s first three seasons as coach. Last year they took handoffs behind a powerful offensive line and rushed for a school-record 2,914 yards (242.8 ypg) and 34 touchdowns. By comparison, the Cavs ran for just 1,272 yards and five TDs in 2001.

Groh has put together a diverse blend of speed, power and pass catchers that rival any in the nation. The Sporting News ranks the Virginia offensive backfield (including Marques Hagans) as the top unit in the ACC and Phil Steele ranks the running backs second. As they have been in the past, touching the ball on 56% of Virginia’s offensive plays in 2003 and 61% last season, the backs will be a critical element of both the running and passing games this season.

The ‘Hoos will miss Alvin Pearman, the ACC’s top all-purpose yardage gainer last season and second in that category on UVa’s career list. But with the presence of Lundy, Jason Snelling and a formidable offensive line, there shouldn’t be much of a hiccup in Virginia’s rushing production in 2005.

Tailback

1) Wali Lundy (Sr., 5-10, 214)

2a) Michael Johnson (Jr., 5-9, 192)

2b) Cedric Peerman (Fr., 5-10, 185)

Michael Johnson

As we explained in the Sabre’s running game preview, Groh does not necessarily denote a first-team or second-team tailback. He knows a team doesn’t go through the season using one tailback, so the former NFL coach likes to mix things up with different backs and different running styles.

Nevertheless, Lundy is clearly the feature back in the Virginia offense. In his career, Lundy has toted the pigskin 598 times for 2,619 yards. He has a 4.4 yards per carry average and has scored 33 rushing touchdowns. Catching the ball is a must for all of the backs in the Virginia system and Lundy also delivers in this category. The New Jersey native has 99 career receptions, 833 receiving yards (8.4 yards per reception) and has scored eight times. He’s also 2 of 4 in the passing department with both completions going for touchdowns.

Lundy is a hard runner who can make people miss, but he needs to play without the nagging injuries that have hampered him throughout his career. He has above-average speed, quickness and acceleration, and has developed into a devastating cutback runner. What I like about Lundy is his ability to explode through the hole with speed that allows him to survey the open field and turn short gains into substantial ones. He has also developed better patience, something that has improved each season Lundy has been in the program.

Cedric Peerman

The battle to be Lundy’s backup is a tight one between Johnson and Peerman. Both are game-breakers who can score from anywhere on the field, but they are not the receiving threat out of the backfield that Lundy is. Johnson has just 10 career receptions and Peerman has yet to play his first collegiate game.

Johnson has battled injuries and fumbling problems, but when he plays he is a productive runner. For his career, Johnson has averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Last season he averaged 6.05 yards each time he ran the football, the third-best mark in the ACC for players with 50 or more carries.

Peerman is looking ready to step up and be a major factor. He has shown flashes in both spring and fall camp and appears to have a keen grasp of the offense and his passing-game assignments.

Fullback

1) Jason Snelling (Jr., 5-11, 245)

2) Kevin Bradley (So., 6-1, 220)

3) Rashawn Jackson (Fr., 6-1, 245)

Jason Snelling

Groh also likes versatility at the fullback position, and there are few fullbacks as versatile as Snelling. Injuries and an undisclosed illness have limited his playing time the last two years, but when healthy Snelling has delivered. In the MPC Computer Bowl against Fresno State, Snelling ran the ball five times for 46 yards. He’s rushed 35 times in his career for 227 yards, a superb 6.5 yards-per-carry average. Snelling is also a receiving threat from his regular fullback position, the H-back, or as a flanker. Yes, flanker. He has caught 36 passes for 353 yards.


The Cavs are excited about Snelling’s return. “He’s another explosive player in the backfield,” Lundy said. “Snelling is basically a tailback playing fullback and he brings a lot of diversity to the backfield. He gets the job done.”

Bradley, Jackson and sophomore Josh Zidenberg have been learning both the tailback and fullback positions, and are likely to spell Snelling when he needs a break. Jackson is similar in body style and speed to Snelling. He has not yet shown the receiving ability of Snelling but few backs can. Bradley has been impressive, especially his ability to explode in the open field. He is still learning his assignments but few defenders are going to relish getting a blow from Bradley with a head of steam, whether he’s blocking the correct player or not. Zidenberg was a bit of an unknown entering spring camp but caught the eyes of many observers. With the load of talent ahead of him, his role may be more on special teams, where he has looks like another Ryan Sawyer, Mark Miller kind of player; a valuable commodity at Virginia.

H-Back

1) Tom Santi (So., 6-5, 240)

2) Jason Snelling (Jr., 5-11, 245)

Tom Santi

The H-back is a hybrid (thus the H) fullback/tight-end position believed to have come into prominence with the emergence of the west coast offense. The H-back often will line up off the end of the line and affords the offense an extra blocker on running plays or an extra receiver or blocker on passing plays.

Santi and Snelling, both starters at other positions, will split time handling the H-back role. Look for one of the younger players like Jackson or Zidenberg to possibly see time at the position.

The Last Word

Virginia possesses a diverse blend of speed, size and power in the offensive backfield. Most are accomplished runners and virtually all can be used in the passing game.

RB coach Anthony Poindexter

But the Virginia offense will rely on the play and health of Lundy and Snelling. Having both in the backfield gives Virginia not only two superb backs and receivers, but also a covetable change of pace. Both are fast, but Lundy is a sleek, elusive runner while Snelling is a bull with jets. Lundy is a scorer, while Snelling is a mismatch for defensive backs because of his power and for linebackers because of his speed. There are linebackers in the ACC who can run with Snelling, but not many.

Virginia finished 12th in the country in rushing offense last season. With an offensive line that will rival the 2004 unit and solid depth at all three backfield positions, there’s no reason for this group not to run its way to another top-15 finish in rushing offense nationally.

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