2016 Season Preview: Running Backs

Photo by Logan Stanford

Florida State has a rich history of running backs that have come and gone through the program.

Warrick Dunn was a phenomenal talent and he currently holds the career rushing record at FSU. Greg Jones was a physical freak at running back and Dexter Reid is probably still feeling the hit that Jones laid on him. Devonta Freeman was a critical part of the 2013 championship team and is currently tearing it up in the NFL.

But none of those players comes close to the superstar that Florida State currently has on its roster.

Expectations were very high when Dalvin Cook (4) enrolled in Tallahassee. A five-star prospect from the 2014 recruiting class, Cook had committed to both Clemson and Florida before settling on the Seminoles and fans were eager to see what the talented running back could do on the field.

Cook’s true freshman season had some very bright moments. Despite not getting major carries until the midway through the 2014 season, Cook shined when he had the ball in his hands. He put up impressive performances against Louisville (9-110-2) and Miami (7-92-2) and single handily brought Florida State back from the brink of defeat in both of those games. Despite ending on a sour note in the Rose Bowl versus Oregon, Cook still rushed for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman.

And then last year happened.

Cook completely obliterated the standard for running backs at Florida State, rushing for 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. He crossed the 100-yard mark eight times during the course of the season and was the focal point of Florida State’s offense. Cook was at his best when Florida State needed him the most, including versus Miami (22-222-2), Clemson (21-194-1) and Florida (26-183-2).

Funny thing is, Cook could have put up even more rushing yards in 2015 if he was healthy. He played most of the year on a tweaked hamstring, which caused him to miss some time. Cook only got two carries versus Wake Forest and sat out the entire Syracuse game because of injury. So while 1,691 yards is an impressive number, it could have been even bigger.

If healthy, Cook is almost a lock to go in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He has everything NFL teams are looking for in their franchise running backs. He has NFL-ready size, elite speed and accelerate, freakish balance and an uncanny ability to see where holes are in the run game. Cook is also fairly good at catching the ball out of the backfield as well. If Cook can stay healthy and replicate his success from 2015, there is no doubt that he will be perhaps the first running back off the board by the time the draft rolls around.

But while Dalvin Cook is an established product, Florida State still needs to find one or two dependable running backs to take carries behind him. Cook does not need to be taking 30 carries versus South Florida or 22 against NC State. If Jimbo Fisher and the coaching staff want to keep Cook fresh for their big contests this year, they need someone to step up to take the load off of Cook’s shoulders.

The first name is Jacques Patrick (9). The 6-2, 231-pound sophomore ran for 314 yards and five touchdowns on 64 carries last year (good for a 5.0 average). However, most of that came in his performance versus Syracuse. With Cook sidelined with injury, Patrick ran for 162 yards. Similarly, Patrick had 54 yards versus NC State in garbage time and 77 yards against Chattanooga.

Simply put, Patrick was not really a factor when it really mattered. He got zero carries versus Miami and Florida, four carries versus Clemson, and only one carry against Houston.

The problem arises because Patrick does not play to his size. At 6-2, 231-pounds, Florida State needed Patrick to be that big-back in short yardage situations and to grind out games in the fourth quarter. But Patrick doesn’t run like a big back. As seen versus Syracuse, he thrives when he has momentum. Pretty much all of his big runs throughout the year occurred when Patrick had a running start and was able to gain momentum.

Patrick also has trouble running through traffic. Whereas Cook is easily able to see holes in the run game, Patrick hesitates before hitting the hole. Clemson was able to take advantage of this a couple of times for tackles for loss. With a big-back like Patrick, you’d want him to run behind his pads and churn out a couple of tough earned yards, not hesitate and look to break the big play. Cook can do this because he has elite vision and accelerate, but Patrick cannot.

Perhaps the problem arises because Patrick tries to play smaller than he actually he is. This is a common occurrence for big backs transitioning to the college level. In high school, they are able to bounce most plays outside or run over people and take it to the house simply due to their athleticism. In college, that doesn’t work. Big backs really have to buy into their role in the offense or else they limit their production.

Ultimately, if Patrick can develop into that bigger running back role, then Florida State is in a good situation to succeed. Cook is able to thrive in most situations, but Patrick will be able to play a huge role in the offense if he becomes the thunder to Cook’s lightning.

An interesting name on the depth chart is redshirt junior Ryan Green (7). A four-star recruit from the 2013 recruiting class, Green worked primarily as a backup in 2013 and 2014. Prior to the start of the 2015 season, Green transitioned to cornerback due to the lack of depth at the position. Unfortunately, he was injured during the offseason and was forced to take a medical redshirt.

In a surprising move, Green moved back to running back in spring practice. While many were skeptical of Green’s role in the offense moving forward, he proved in the spring game that he is certainly capable of being the No. 2 running back behind Cook. He made several impressive runs in the spring game, including a few where he moved Derwin James in a way that not many players in college football can do.

Green is a very similar runner to Cook. He has very good, but not elite, speed and is more than capable of beating defenders to the edge. He also runs with a bit of power as well. While many fans seem to think that Patrick is automatically penciled in as the No. 2 back behind Cook, there is a very good chance that Green steals away that role to begin the season.

Another bigger back on Florida State’s roster is junior Jonathan Vicker (26). Since enrolling in the same class as Cook, Vicker’s role has been limited. He appeared in relief duty when Cook went down with an injury versus Wake Forest, but did not see much action besides that appearance. With Patrick and Green seemingly ahead of Vickers in the pecking order, it would be a surprise if the junior saw many carries in 2015.

A name to keep in mind is true freshman Amir Rasul (22). A four-star recruit, Rasul has turned some heads this offseason because of his world-class speed. He brings a unique element to the offense with that speed, which could open up a lot of interesting plays that Florida State could run to take advantage of that. Think back to 2013 when Florida State schemed up a few plays here and there to take advantage of Kermit Whitfield’s speed against a tired defense. But similarly to Vickers, it is unlikely that Rasul will see major snaps in 2015 outside of garbage time.

An important element to Florida State’s run game is the fullback position and the Seminoles have a very capable starter at the position in senior Freddie Stevenson (23). A two-year starter at fullback, Stevenson has made noticeable improvements to his blocking abilities and was surprisingly good as a junior in 2015. With another year in the system, Stevenson will be a critical part of the run (and perhaps pass) game moving forward. Florida State recruited Gabe Nabers (35) to be their fullback of the future, but it is unlikely that he sees major snaps outside of garbage time as a true freshman.

Florida State returns perhaps the best college player in the country in Dalvin Cook. That alone should have fans excited for the potential of this position group in 2016. If one of Patrick or Green can step up and become a dependable No. 2 behind Cook, then the Seminoles’ run game could become even more dangerous. With Cook at the helm, the running back group could have a chance to break all kind of records in 2016 as they lead Florida State to another berth in the College Football Playoffs.

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