During spring practice, the Virginia football coaches made it clear that an improved running game sat high on the priority list this offseason. So they focused on fundamentals and installed some scheme changes. Then they drilled it, drilled it, and drilled it some more.
The motivation there is simple. The more consistent the running game can be, the more balanced the offense can be. A more balanced offense is more difficult to defend and that’s an important characteristic to have against stronger defenses. That in turn gives the team a chance at more wins.
That’s certainly how it played out last year at least. Virginia had 80 or more rushing yards from its leading rusher in five of its six wins, but 60 or less from the leading rusher in the seven losses. That was particularly evident in the final three games of the season, all losses, when the leading rusher had 29, nine, and 37 yards respectively. In the season’s key four-game winning streak that helped secure bowl eligibility, the leading rusher rattled off 95, 93, 96, and 136 yards in the victories.
The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series returns to look at part of the running game.
No. 87 – It Starts With Jordan Ellis
In his first two seasons, Bronco Mendenhall instituted a jersey number draft with the players in charge of the draft order. Both times, they selected running back Jordan Ellis to make the first pick. Regardless of whether Ellis makes it three for three with the No. 1 pick this preseason, the traits that landed him at the top of the order remain. Teammates and coaches love his work ethic, his determination, and his physical running style.
So even as the coaches switch the schemes to fit a more mobile quarterback in Bryce Perkins, having Ellis in the fold is certainly a good starting point for an improved running game. After all, he had one of the better single season performances in program history in 2017. Only 19 players have produced 900 or more yards in a season and the Cavaliers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Kevin Parks in 2013.
Ellis recorded 836 rushing yards last fall, the 26th best single season mark at UVA. He also tallied six rushing touchdowns with one receiving touchdown; his seven total touchdowns tied Andre Levrone for the team lead. Through three years, he has 253 carries for 971 yards and nine touchdowns.
Here’s a look at the list of top running seasons in program history:
- 1999 Thomas Jones – 1,798 yards/5.4 yards per carry
- 1995 Tiki Barber – 1,397/5.3
- 1996 Tiki Barber – 1,360/5.4
- 1998 Thomas Jones – 1,303/5.5
- 1985 Barry Word – 1,224/5.9
- 1949 John Papit – 1,214/6.2
- 1968 Frank Quayle – 1,213/6.9
- 1992 Terry Kirby – 1,130/6.5
- 1989 Marcus Wilson – 1,098/4.9
- 1979 Tommy Vigorito – 1,045/5.7
- 2004 Alvin Pearman – 1,037/5.3
- 2013 Kevin Parks – 1,031/4.5
- 2000 Antwoine Womack – 1,028/4.9
- 1990 Terry Kirby – 1,020/6.2
- 1941 Bill Dudley – 968/6.1
- 1950 John Papit – 949/5.7
- 2016 Taquan Mizzell – 940/5.0
- 2003 Wali Lundy – 929/4.1
- 2011 Perry Jones – 915/5.0
- 1991 Terry Kirby – 887/5.4
- 1948 John Papit – 885/6.6
- 1956 Jim Bakhtiar – 879/4.3
- 1993 Jerrod Washington – 871/5.4
- 1969 Gary Helman – 851/3.7
- 1975 David Sloan – 848/4.8
- 2017 Jordan Ellis – 836/3.9
- 1983 Howard Petty – 835/4.9
Skimming through that list provides a glimpse at where some improvement can come from this season. While Ellis did put up 836 rushing yards, much of that due to the determined running style mentioned above that allowed him to fight through traffic for even minimal gains at times, there is room for better production on a per carry basis. He logged 215 carries last season at 3.9 yards per carry.
Looking again at the list of single season rushing leaders, only one other year among the top 27 showed the leading rusher at fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. Gary Helman checked in at 3.7 yards per carry in 1969. UVA’s other two heavy-use running backs last season, Daniel Hamm and Chris Sharp, also fell short of 4.0 yards per carry. The Cavaliers boosted the running game by getting touches to receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed.
There appears to be more depth in the running back unit this season. While Hamm departs, Sharp returns and is joined by PK Kier, Lamont Atkins, and Jamari Peacock. The last three are expected to have bigger roles this season after playing as true freshman in 2017. What that may mean for Ellis is better production – at least in terms of yards per carry – on the same or fewer carries. In terms of ‘and goal’ situations, I still expect Ellis to get shots to score in there along with Kier.
Ellis, as well as the other backs, may benefit from two other personnel situations too.
First, with Perkins in at quarterback, the Hoos expect to use more option-style plays where the quarterback decides what to do with the football. Since Perkins is expected to be a threat running the football, that could open up lanes for the backs when the defense focuses too much on the quarterback. The question will be whether Perkins can put pressure on defenses with the passing game too – when Kurt Benkert had it going in the air, that backed off the linebackers and opened up some room for runners in a different way.
Second, the offensive line stabilization project has continued to progress. The unit returns five players that not only saw snaps last season, but started at least one game each. The Hoos are still bringing in one graduate transfer for depth and Marcus Applefield started at Rutgers last season too. That’s six players with starting experience. If the offseason focus on improved run-blocking techniques helps those players develop further, that could help out Ellis and company as well.
So far, the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has looked at an addition to the defensive line, defending running quarterbacks, and more. The previous articles are below. Click away.
- No. 99 – The importance of a fast start
- No. 98 – The impact of early-ending careers
- No. 97 – Jordan Mack’s role
- No. 96 – Welcome Back
- No. 95 – Han Solo Says
- No. 94 -Smart Addition
- No. 93 – The Center Spot
- No. 92 – Finding A Punt Returner
- No. 91 – Facing Running Quarterbacks
- No. 90 – Interceptions
- No. 89 – Kickoff Times
- No. 88 – QB Optimism Not Enough To Tilt Early Predictions Too Far