2017 Houston Cougars fall practice preview: Running backs
By: Jimmy Schofield
photo courtesy uhcougars.com
With the dog days of summer upon us, Coogfans will break down each position for your 2017 Houston Cougars football team led by first year head coach Major Applewhite. Each Monday a new article will be published, with today’s focusing on the running backs.
Last season the Coogs averaged just 147 yards-per-game (99th nationally), but subtract off-the-script quarterback scrambles and that dropped significantly to just 95 ypg, while averaging a tad over 4 yards-per-carry from the six running backs that saw game action. This must improve if they hope to win the conference and participate in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowls, this year’s Group-of-5 bowl game candidates. That’s if they don’t make the four team playoff. With that we take a look at the post spring depth chart:
Post-Spring depth chart (this is my guess as Applewhite hasn’t released an official depth chart)
Duke Catalon (6-foot, 210 pounds, R-Jr.), Patrick Carr (5-10, 195, R-So.), Dillon Birden (5-9, 172, Sr.), Mulbah Car (5-11, 194, So.), Kaliq Kokuma (5-11, 210, R-Jr.), Kevrin Justice (5-11, 190, R-So.), Josh Burrell (5-10, 247, So.), Chandler Smith (5-7, 180, RFr.), and Blake Hirsch (6-0, 220, Jr.)
True freshman contributor:
When it comes to Mitchell, 5-11, 175 pounder has something coaches can’t teach; speed. He finished his high school career as Rockdale High’s all-time leader with 56 total TD’s and second all-time in school history with 3,283 rushing yards. He has the ability to take the ball to the house catching the ball out of the backfield as well as he added 674 career receiving yards on 34 receptions with eight TD’s. It’s going to be a loaded backfield but he’ll have an opportunity to contribute this season if he impresses during summer camp. If not, look for him to redshirt his true freshman season.
Analysis (of 2016): Numbers wise the position looks stacked, but production wise is another story, as earlier stated. Of the ten listed running backs, only five are on scholarship as of this writing (Catalon, Car, Kokuma, Justice and Mitchell). Carr and Birden may be awarded ‘schollies’ based on production as they are biding to back up Catalon who’s the established starter.
Catalon was besieged by injuries last season and played in only 9 of the team’s 13 games, starting in 7 of them. The former 4-star Aldine Eisenhower product rushed for 528 yards last season (with 4 touchdowns) but only averaged 3.6 yards-per-attempt, due mainly to nagging ankle and concussion issues. He was a dangerous weapon out of the backfield as a receiver as he caught 44 passes (fourth on the team) for 281 yards (6.4 yards-per-reception), crossing the goal line and additional 3 times. If the pass rush becomes to fierce for whoever the starting quarterback ends up being, Catalon is a nice safety outlet via simple swing passes while also being more than effective off of screens or motioning out to the slot, forcing a linebacker or safety to cover him. With his ankle injuries behind him, Catalon should be able to cut quicker behind the zone blocking scheme in which he needs to diagnose where the hole is and explode through it or cut back off the designated backside gap. Last season he was known to “dance” too much in the backfield, allowing defenders to bring him down at or behind the line, thus his 3.6 ypc. Of course a lot of this had to do with poor blocking up front as well.
Dancing behind the line was not something that could be said of Birden, who led the unit in ypc with 4.7 (289 yards on 62 carries). After transferring from Blinn Junior College, the Houston Cy-Fairs product also led the unit with six rushing TD’s after transitioning from corner back early in the season. Unlike Catalon, Birden is more a down-hill rusher even at a diminutive 175 pounds as he uses his stocky 5-9 frame well. Birden makes quick, decisive decisions and will plant his plant his foot into the ground and make a quick cut. With more experience he should be a more confident runner this season, even though his carries were fewer and far between as last season progressed.
Battling Birden behind Catalon will be Patrick Carr, a transfer who sat out last season after playing at Colorado during the 2015 season as a true freshman, along with Mulbah Car who rushed for 206 yards last season (4.2 ypc) as a true freshman himself. Carr was an ESPN top-300 rated player coming out of the Woodlands where he finished his career as the Highlanders all-time leading rusher with 4,932 yards, total yards from scrimmage with 5,202 and TD’s with 51. After rushing for 1,276 yards (7.6 per carry) and 18 scores his senior year, he rushed for 272 yards on 66 carries (4.1 per carry) his true freshman season for the Buffs, including a game in which he ran for 100 yards and a score in a game at UCLA, while also catching 5 passes out of the backfield for 52 yards. Carr is also a terrific athlete as he lettered in track-and-field for four years at the Woodlands, owning the school record in the long jump (23-11) and running a 10.56 in the 100-meters (stats per uhcougars.com). That athleticism was on full display during the spring game as Carr rushed for 122 yards on 15 carries during the annual Red-White spring scrimmage, though plenty were against third teamers in the second half.
Carr as demonstrated during the spring game has the speed to outrun defenders around the edge but also can excel between the tackles with his 195 pound frame. The same could be said of Car and his 194 pounds. Mulbah had his best game last season against Lamar with 109 yards and a TD on 20 carries and finished as the Austin Independent School District’s all-time leader rusher with 4,833 yards. The Austin Reagan High product should also gain confidence and be more productive this season as he’s a prototypical Applewhite-type player; tough between the tackles with the ability to be a dangerous cutback runner.
Kokuma and Justice have been on campus a few seasons each and could fall behind in the competition for carries if they don’t kick it into high gear over summer training camp. Kokuma has rushed for a combined 107 yards on 22 carries the past two seasons after redshirting his true freshman season in 2014. The Clear Creek product had over 2,000 combined rushing yards his last two seasons in which he was named offensive MVP and captain during both his junior and senior seasons and was also a Galveston county first team all-district running back both seasons. Justice rushed for 149 yards last season including 111 on 27 carries in the game against Lamar. He redshirted his true freshman season (in 2015) after setting the Kilgore High record with 51 TD’s and finished third all-time in rushing yards with 3,410. Justice is versatile as he has good hands coming out of the backfield, breakaway speed but with all young running backs, needs to find his confidence between the tackles and not try to take everything to the outside.
A wildcard in the running back competition could be Burrell, who at nearly 250 pounds could be a factor in goal line situations. The Missouri City Ridge Point product rushed for 51 yards on 12 carries in limited playing time last season and just needs to refine his game.
Expectations (for 2017):
Running backs coach Kenith Pope will have plenty of options at running back; the question is which one will ultimately step up behind Catalon? And will Catalon take his game to the next level? With the called quarterback run part zone read option no longer available for the most part (we’ll get more into that in two weeks when we preview the QB position), opposing defenses will be able to key in more on the backs with little threat of a QB run game. Expect the offense to adjust to more of a pure pocket passer under new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, though the run game will still be a main focus as well. Next week we take a look at the wide receivers and tight ends.