UMass has plenty of running backs competing for carries

Laste modified: Monday, June 08, 2015
AMHERST — After his team threw the ball over 100 times more than it ran it last year, UMass coach Mark Whipple hopes to have a more balanced offense in 2015.

He’s not lacking for candidates willing to pick up some of those extra carries. The Minutemen bring back all four running backs that had 15 or more carries last year. Marquis Young, who’ll be a true freshman in the fall, is already enrolled and in the competition as well.

Shadrach Abrokwah, who led UMass with 578 yards in eight games last year, will likely get first crack at starting and will certainly play a role.

Jamal Wilson, who was UMass’ leading rusher in 2013 (100 carries, 368 yards), missed most of last season with an ACL tear. He’s practicing, but isn’t allowed to be tackled or hit in the spring. Wilson is expected to be at full speed in the fall.

Lorenzo Woodley, who had an up-and-down 2014 season with 415 yards on 104 carries, figures to be in the mix, as will freshman J.T. Bylden, who showed potential early before an undisclosed injury in early October ended his season.

“We’re just rolling them through. Jamal’s been back and running around. Shad’s been good, Lorenzo’s been good. J.T. has looked good out there,” Whipple said. “We just try to have them all ready to compete.”

Woodley said while the backs are competing against each other for playing time, they’ve been trying help each other get better.

“The more guys there are, the more fun the competition and practice is. Everybody is getting reps and getting a chance to prove what they can do,” he said. “We try to guide each other and help each other get better, making sure everybody is on the same page.

“We have to make sure everyone is on the same page. If one man goes down, we have to make sure the next one is ready to go,” Woodley said. “That’s the motto. You have to be ready when your name is called.”

The Minutemen know first hand how that goes. Wilson, who was the No. 1 running back out of camp last year, suffered a season-ending knee injury at Vanderbilt in the third game of the season.

Wilson said he’s bounced back faster physically than he has mentally.

“It feels great just to get out there and contribute,” Wilson said. “I feel like I know the plays. The most important thing for me when I get to fall camp is I have to get it out of my head. When it first happened, any pressure I put on it was pain. It felt like it was never going to end. But now it feels fine when I’m out there running around. I haven’t been to the ground yet. I’m still anticipating that. I’ve been thinking about how it would feel to get dragged down the ground.”

Whipple said Wilson’s presence has given the team, and especially the running backs, a lift.

“He’s been good. He’s the leader of the room. It’s been good to have him back,” Whipple said.

UMass missed Wilson’s blocking as much as it did his running. Whipple said the entire unit’s improvement in that aspect of the game has given the offense a lift.

“Protection has been a big emphasis,” Whipple said. “They’re doing a lot better job. They understand the reads in the pass protection. That’s been a plus.”

Woodley thought pass-protecting ability might eventually determine playing time.

“Everybody can run, but it takes a special type of running back that can run and block. The guy who can block is going to be the guy that can play, because you’ve got to protect the quarterback,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in our blocking. It’s a maturity thing. Once you take more pride in the blocking the more comfortable you’re going to be in the offense.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage