What can UVA football do to jumpstart anemic running game?
UVA football averaged 137.8 yards per game on the ground in 2014, 99th nationally among 128 FBS teams, and that was with senior tailback Kevin Parks, who finished his career ranked fifth in program history with 3,219 rushing yards, getting the bulk of the carries.
With Parks gone, the focus shifts to former five-star recruit Taquan Mizzell, entering his junior season on the heels of two subpar campaigns that have him at just 464 career yards rushing, 899 career yards from scrimmage and a whopping four career touchdowns.
Much has been and will be expected of Mizzell, still known as Smoke to teammates and coaches, even as fans want to see more smoke and less mirrors.
“I’ve got a way bigger role this year,” Mizzell told reporters before a Friday spring scrimmage. “I’m just going to take it a game at a time, and I know my teammates are going to back me up.”
Mizzell was used best in 2014 in third-down situations, often lining up in the slot and using his speed to get open on quick slants and drags.
The 5’10”, 200-pounder was second on the team in receptions, with 39, but averaged just 6.9 yards per catch, a factor of the kinds of catches he was making, usually in third-and-four-or-less situations where the aim was just to move the sticks.
Now prepping to be the featured back, Mizzell is “excited” about his enhanced role heading into 2015.
“This is the role I’ve been waiting for. I feel way better as a player, more mature. The time is right,” Mizzell said.
It should help that the offensive line brings back experience and depth. A weak link in 2014, the line could be a foundation for the 2015 Cavs.
“When you look at the group as a whole, there’s a lot of guys in there that played last year. We talked about the depth and the experience of an offensive line that has played college games, it’s a benefit for us,” UVA coach Mike London said.
Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said the O line has been a “bright spot” in the spring, and senior guard Ross Burbank, saying the line is “not where need to be yet,” sees the progress every single day in spring practice.
“That’s the big thing. We’re flying off the ball, quarterbacks are hitting receivers, receivers are running, tight ends are blocking and catching. I’m really excited about it,” Burbank said.
So the line shouldn’t be a hindrance to the running game, at the least. The big question will be, can Mizzell, a speed back, carry the load the way the more durable Parks and Khalek Shephard could?
The question is key as depth at tailback is a clear area of concern. Just two other tailbacks on the depth chart this spring have any college carries. Sophomore Daniel Hamm has a total of 40 rushes in parts of two seasons, and junior LaChaston Smith has 10, and of those 50 combined career carries for the Hamm-Smith duo, 31 of them came in a September 2013 blowout win over in-state FCS patsy VMI.
“The identity of a running game is always critical with the guys you have up front. Watching and seeing the running backs, whether it’s Taquan, whether it’s Daniel Hamm, (Jordan) Ellis, LaChaston Smith, to see if they can provide the kind of running power that we need,” London said.
“With the improvement of the offensive line, those running backs that I just mentioned, they’ll have chances, they’ve had chances to do some things there on offense,” London said. “Daniel Hamm has looked really good. Smoke has done a nice job. You want to make sure that the strengths that we have on the offensive line can complement the running backs that we have and help us be more productive in the running game.”
– Story by Chris Graham