UMass gets creative with running back depth

  • Fredi Knighten, who is the running backs coach for UMass, works with a group of players during practice, Aug. 14 at McGuirk Stadium. For a team committed to running the football, UMass is staring at a lack of true running backs on the roster. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass junior running back Bilal Ally loses his balance 11 yards shy of the goal line after evading Duquesne defenders Reid Harrison-Ducros, left, and Brandon Stanback on a 66-yard run in the first quarter of the Minutemen’s 63-15 win over the Dukes in last season’s home opener at Warren McGuirk Stadium in Amherst on Aug. 25, 2018. STAFF File PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/28/2019 9:48:03 PM
Modified: 8/28/2019 9:47:59 PM

AMHERST — For a team committed to running the football, UMass is staring at a lack of true running backs on the roster.

There’s redshirt junior Bilal Ally and true freshman Kevin Brown, but after those two the healthy depth at the position is as thin as anywhere else on the roster. Nick Orekoya has missed most of the summer with an injury and Victor Santiago has run as the third true running back on the squad. Everyone else is either a walk-on or a player converted from a different position.

The most notable of those conversions is junior college transfer Cam Roberson, who was named as the co-backup running back on the initial depth chart released Tuesday ahead of Friday’s season opener at Rutgers. Roberson came to UMass as a wide receiver, but spent the last week of spring practice with the running backs and has seen most action during the summer at the position, too.

Head coach Walt Bell insists it’s not a permanent move, but he also said Roberson could help the team greater as a running back with his current skill set.

“I wouldn’t say it’s permanent, right now we’re just trying to hammer home those skills,” Bell said Monday. “A little thin at running back, so for us, we’re building depth there. He’s done a really nice job in some of our scrimmage work of being a good running back. The ability to play him at running back, take a load off Bilal and KB, and then the ability to use him and get him in the slot and create some matchup issues knowing that he is a functional wide receiver. It’s building his skill set where he can be a multi-purpose tool.”

Ally is really the only known quantity in the running back room after rushing for 139 yards on 25 carries in four games last year to bring his UMass career total to 605 yards on 131 touches. He left the team for personal reasons last October, but returned this spring with a renewed focus and determination.

He said he worked hard over the offseason at learning defenses and increasing his general knowledge of the game to better help in pass protection, one of the key responsibilities backs have in Bell’s spread offense.

Meanwhile, Brown has impressed in practice since enrolling in January. His blend of physicality and speed popped during the Minutemen’s scrimmages and the coaches have raved about how quickly Brown was able to pick up the offense and what was being asked of him on the field.

“Kevin is a really bright football player, he’s been able to come in and grasp the offense really well,” running backs coach Fredi Knighten said. “Now for him, it’s going to be when the lights and the camera are around, the actual football atmosphere where young guys sometimes try to do too much. ... It’s going to be interesting to see him go out there on game day and (see) how he performs. But he’s a fighter, he loves to go hit people, he loves to be physical, now he has the chance to do it on Friday.”

Brown admitted there will be butterflies for his first carry, but that he normally settles into the game well after that first touch of the season. He’ll be relied upon to take a lot of snaps along with Ally and Roberson in the fast-paced offense that is going to emphasize the run.

Bell has repeatedly said a good ground game is critical to his offense and that UMass fans should expect more commitment to running the football. Ally said he’s excited to see the rushing attack in action and the problems it can cause opponents.

“With this spread offense, it’s lovely,” Ally said. “I can’t wait until coach puts it in effect and we can just pound the ball because that’s going to be key to knocking our opponents down and getting them tired and getting them gassed when it comes down to the third quarter and fourth quarter and finishing the game.”

FRESHMEN DEPTH — Brown isn’t the only freshman to grace the two-deep Bell released for the opener.

Jermaine ‘OC’ Johnson Jr. is the only one of the eight true freshmen listed on the depth chart to be named a starter. He’s listed as the co-starter with Brennon Dingle at the A receiver position, and has showcased his potential throughout camp.

The coaches have been high on him since he signed in December out of Dematha Catholic in Maryland, especially considering Johnson was originally being recruited by Bell when the coach was the offensive coordinator at Maryland. Bell said he believes Johnson is ready to handle the physical demands of the job despite being listed at 5-foot-10, 165 pounds and is hopeful he can use Johnson to stretch the field.

“The most important thing is regardless of frame, he’s a tough guy,” Bell said. “He may not do it perfect all the time, he’s still learning, he’s still swimming, he’s still figuring it out, he’s going to make some young mistakes — and that’s OK — but he’s a tough guy. Secondly, he and Isaiah (Rodgers) are the two fastest human beings on the team ... so hopefully in terms of pushing the ball down the field, he’s a guy we can do that with.”

There are three freshmen listed on the defensive line, a consequence of a lack of depth up front for the Minutemen. But Bell was complimentary of the work Billy Wooden and Wilson Frederic have done this summer as the two youngsters have bulked up at least 20 pounds each since arriving this summer.

Grant Laws is the third-string nose tackle behind Frederic and starter Dennis Osagiede. Josh Wallace has earned a role as a co-backup at cornerback behind Donte Lindsey while Tanner Davis is a third-string safety.

Bell said the experience these young players get will be valuable for long-term gain even if the short-term is potentially going to be rough.

“Young guys in the trenches are going to get beat on a little bit, that’s part of it,” Bell said. “But it’s going to make the program better in the future. We’re excited about this group, there will be a lot of learning experiences on the fly, we’ll figure it out.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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