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Virginia looks to develop run game to build balance on offense

amaad foston
Virginia running back Amaad Foston takes a handoff from QB Brennan Armstrong. Photo courtesy UVA Athletics.

A tick under 72 percent of the play calls from Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae last season were intended to be passes.

The best running play for the offense wasn’t a run call; it was QB1 Brennan Armstrong scrambling, which he did 32 times for 262 yards.

Those 32 scrambles alone would have ranked third on the running back depth chart in terms of attempts.

Wayne Taulapapa led the backs with a paltry 62 carries and 328 yards rushing.

This is all subject to change under new head coach Tony Elliott, a former running backs coach, new offensive coordinator Des Kitchings, a former running backs coach, and the new Virginia running backs coach, Keith Gaither.

Elliott, also the offensive coordinator at Clemson the past seven seasons, called runs on 49.5 percent of his plays in 2021.

Balance is the new world order in the offense room at UVA.

The challenge to the backs: learning how to be running backs at the Power 5 level.

“They have to learn how to receive the ball, setting the pocket, ball security, all the basic things that you would think a third- or second-year player would know,” said Gaither, who has had to almost start over with Virginia’s running backs.

The two guys getting the bulk of the snaps in the spring – 5’9”, 203-pound junior Mike Hollins and 6’0”, 217-pound sophomore Amaad Foston – had a total of 231 snaps a year ago, all from Hollins, who got 49 carries (on which he gained 218 yards, a 4.5 yard per carry average) and had 16 catches out of the backfield.

“It’s a big, big shift, going from maybe five to 10 carries a game or every two games to, you know, 30 reps straight running in practice, really getting back in my groove, and everybody in the room, we came here to run the ball, so, it’s kind of nice to be fed,” said Hollins, who long-time observers of the program have expected big things from since he first stepped foot on Grounds.

One reason why we haven’t seen what has been expected has been the lack of use. Gaither points to a second thing with Hollins that he seems to have been working on.

“I think he’s come out with the right mindset, coming to be the guy, trying to solidify himself as a starting running back. Because when we first got here, we heard about his ability, but when we got to practice, we didn’t see it,” Gaither said. “He was inconsistent for his practice habits, wasn’t an every-down guy, and in the last six practices, you see him emerging. He’s starting to take coaching better, he’s starting to be a little bit more consistent in his play, and he understands our goal is finding a way to get better every day, instead of being occasionally great.”

Big things are also expected from Foston, who ran for 2,772 yards and 46 touchdowns as a high school junior in 2019, and 5’11”, 218-pound fifth-year running back Ronnie Walker Jr., who was a top-25 prep recruit out of Hopewell High School, which he led to a state title in 2017.

The two other backs on the roster: 5’8”, 180-pound senior Perris Jones, who ran for more than 5,000 yards in high school, and 5’11”, 175-pound freshman Xavier Brown, the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year in 2021.

It will take some time to get the backs past the lack of utilization and skill development under Anae.

“Just football IQ, just understanding defense, four down, five down, who’s got A gap, who’s got B gap, just basic football, I think that’s the first point of growth. I think the second point of the growth is just Football 101 fundamentals,” Gaither said. “They’ve done a great job embracing, they’ve gotten better from Day 1 to Day 11 in just the fundamentals of being a good running back. They’ve got three running back coaches on staff, with Coach Elliott, Coach Kitchings and myself, and every day, every rep, there’s tons of coaching points, so they’ve had an opportunity to grow, and you’ve seen that from Day 1.”

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
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