Running back depth remains key point of emphasis for Rutgers going forward
If there is one positive to take away from its week one loss to No. 8 Washington, the Rutgers football team has its running backs.
There are four of them — graduate transfer Gus Edwards, senior Robert Martin, freshman Raheem Blackshear and senior Josh Hicks — and all saw playing time in the Scarlet Knights' 30-14 defeat at the hands of the Huskies at High Point Solutions Stadium.
It is a depth not afforded to most positions across the board for the Rutgers coaching staff, which has been a point of attention for head coach Chris Ash.
“If you look at that position group right now today, with the addition of Gus, in my opinion the improved Rob Martin, adding Blackshear in there and then you’ve got Josh Hicks, we’ve got a pretty good group in there," he said.
Against a backfield that offensive coordinator Jerry Kill deemed the best the Knights would face all season, Edwards, Martin and Blackshear outran Washington's running back core volume-wise. As a team, the three combined for 148 rushing yards while the Huskies had just 103 rushing yards, albeit with fewer attempts.
Forty-two rushing plays coming out of Friday night's game is not unusual — with a starting quarterback new to the team in Kyle Bolin, it's natural for him to rely on his backfield in high-pressure situations, as he did often on third down against Washington, which paid off nine times out of 19.
But where the depth really comes into play for Rutgers is the versatility, not just within the running backs but among them.
The most flexible of all, according to Ash, is the one who earned the starting job.
“Gus has got tremendous size," he said. "What stood out is he’s got pretty good feet for his size, he can run with power, but he also has enough agility to make you miss. He can change direction in a small pace and (has) great ball security.”
The transfer out of Miami ran for 79 yards on 24 attempts Friday night, and though not the beneficiary of the flashiest of numbers in the boxscore, Edwards's efforts helped move the sticks out of tough possessions.
Edwards also showed up on the receiving end, catching three passes for 18 total yards and only trailing Washington's Myles Gaskin and Dante Pettis in all-purpose yards.
Following Edwards on the field was Martin, who led the team in rushing the last two years with 763 and 625 rushing yards in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Losing the starting job to Edwards in the summer, Martin's progress shown on Friday night gives the team extra ammunition going forward, and he owes much of it to competition.
"He ran very hard and physical," Kill said. "Competition does a lot for you. Either you fold in it or you take it on."
Another one of the 22 players taking their first snap in a Rutgers uniform Friday was Blackshear, a freshman who took the ball three times, amassing nine yards in the process.
While not seeing much playing time, Ash found Blackshear's performance in his first ever collegiate game promising amid limited reps, especially against a rush defense as strong as Washington's.
Coming up against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, Rutgers' running backs will likely have more space to clear up the clutter that exists at the position at the moment and shore up the roles for each of the four backs, bringing Hicks into the mix as well. That clutter is a good problem to have for this Knights offense, a relatively inexperienced one at that.
With four running backs vying for playing time, in-game performance is plenty determined by work throughout the week, which Ash maintains is the singular motivator for each not just on Saturday, but all week at practice. Competition breeds improvement in all areas, and he has something at the running back position that he does not in most places.
"They’re gonna have to show up everyday and practice and study and focus and fight for every opportunity to be out there," Ash said. "That’s what you want. We wish we had that at every position. We don’t have that yet, but that’s one position we do.”