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Football Preview Weekish: Running Backs

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See Brown run. Run, Brown. Run.

As part of TheUConnBlog’s 2009 football Season Preview Week, we’re rolling out the position primers and opponent capsules. Today, we look at the running backs.

Previously on TheUConnBlog: Without Donald Brown last season, it's quite possible that UConn's offense could have been one of the worst in Division I-A, much in the same way it was the year prior. With the team shuffling between the inexperienced and the noodle-armed at quarterback, and the receivers only showing up for the postgame cheese platter, Brown was, almost literally, the only player to do anything positive a season ago.

Behind a line that, to its credit developed over time -- thanks in large part to an infusion of young talent -- but was generally nothing to write home about, Brown churned out the greatest performance ever by a UConn player. Not even the mythical Dan O. could duplicate what Brown did.

In 2008, The Donald was the best rusher (statistically) in college football, averaging a nation-best 160.23 yards per game and 18 touchdowns. More importantly, Brown's 2,083 rushing yards comprised almost 3/4 of UConn's total rushing yards, and his 2,208 total yards were almost half of the team's total yardage.

Simply put, Donald Brown was UConn's offense.

Which is why almost everyone is writing off the Huskies for this season. Despite the losses of Darius Butler and both defensive ends, the consensus seems to be that the defense, which ranked sixth in total defense and 16th in scoring defense (its second straight season in the top 25), has enough coming back to remain among the best, at least in the conference.

But the departure of Brown, who is already melting faces (and giving as bland a statement as humanly possible) on the pro level as a first-round pick of the Colts, would have to handicap an already pedestrian offense, no?

The depth chart:

  1. #23 Jordan Todman, sophomore (296 rushing yards, 4 receiving, 3 TDs)
  2. #2 Andre Dixon, redshirt senior (37 rushing yards, 8 receiving)
  3. #44 Robbie Frey, redshirt sophomore (71 rushing yards, 1 TD)
  4. #22 Meme Wylie, redshirt sophomore (23 rushing yards)

2008 high points:

  • For Brown, pretty much every game. But some of his better performances include: 261 yards and a TD in the International Bowl, 146 yards and 4 TDs against Hofstra, 206 yards and 3 TDs against Virginia.
  • Todman rushes for 81 yards, including a 48-yards scamper, and a TD against Virginia. He also had broke off a 50-yarder against Syracuse en route to racking up 78 yards and a TD.

2008 low points:

  • For Brown, not many. He failed to break the 100-yard mark just twice, against West Virginia (82 yards and a TD) and USF (96 yards).
  • Any time Dixon toted the rock. It was like watching your uncoordinated child playing pop-warner.

Just goin’ off popular consensus:

  • Phil Steele: Ranks the running backs third in the conference
  • Athlon: Shockingly, has them sixth
  • ESPN: Big East blogger Brian Bennett, a fan of alliteration, has the unit ranked third behind West Virginia and Louisville.

Our outlook: In response to the question above: I don't think so.

While the offense loses four players (Brown, QB Tyler Lorenzen, C Keith Gray, OT Will Beatty) who made it to NFL camps, the passing attack should see stark improvements, if for no other reason than it can't sink much lower. And, besides, there's more than enough returning to be somewhat optimistic. Although the team loses five of its eight top receivers, there wasn't much distinction in being amongst that group anyway; Kashif Moore led all pass-catchers with 273 yards, and fullback Anthony Sherman was right behind him with 270. The offensive line is talented and deep enough to overcome its losses, and despite his turnover issues, Zach Frazer showed that he is a capable passer, the first one UConn has had since Dan O.

So, with any hope, the running game doesn't have to be so crucial this season. Especially in Joe Moorhead's no-huddle attack, which, one would guess, has to put more emphasis on the pass (and use fewer inside draws). So not only does this year's crop of backs have to play in Brown's enormous shadow, but the numbers might pale in comparison to even two seasons ago. Not because of inferior talent, but because the team may actually have a passing game -- and for the love of God, please, please use it.

But as long as you temper unreasonable expectations of a 2008 repeat, and take into the account that the team may never have a more productive rushing offense than West Virginia ever again, the running game can be a success, perhaps even a huge one.

Individually, West Virginia's Noel Devine and Louisville's Victor Anderson are the Big East's best running backs, and both have been picked as such in most preseason material I've read. But in Dixon and Todman, UConn probably has the best backfield duo (also taking into account running QBs) in the conference. And behind them, Frey – who will return kicks along with Todman – and "Screamin'" Meme are two underrated runners who provide great depth.

Dixon and Todman are both interesting cases because, somehow, they're both proven and unproven, all at the same time.

Dixon has proven himself to be a capable runner, one who seemed destined to at least be the 1A back last year in what was supposed to be a 50-50 split between he and Brown. But after myriad on- and off-field issues derailed his 2008, he remains an enigma for 2009.

But it’s important to note that Dixon’s descent, one that left him hitting the bottle a few times, wasn’t because of a lack of talent. From early-season injuries to his run-ins with the law to the emergence of Brown, Dixon had as much go against him last year as possible.

And while there’s still some doubt surrounding whether he can ever be the same player that compiled 828 yards and earned second team All-Big East honors, especially after losing the top spot on the two-deep to Todman and continuing to provide sound bites that make you shake your head, he hasn’t suddenly lost the skills that made him a household name (in Connecticut) to begin with. Dixon has and will have every chance to separate himself from Todman and become the No. 1 he’s always thought himself as. But the team may be more successful if he puts his ego aside and helps form a Thunder and Lightening combo a la Tiki Barber and the Great Ron Dayne with Todman.

Alone, neither Todman nor Dixon can recreate the success or the skill set of Brown. Put together, they are perfect compliments who can form some awesome Megazord-like back.

Todman only had 47 carries to show what he could do last year, but in the games he toted the ball more than six times, he went for 78 yards and 81, scored twice and broke off longs of 48 and 50.

And although Dixon has never been considered a T.J. Duckett, between-the-tackles runner, he can still grind it out and force teams to defend a different style. And put them on the field at the same time, perhaps in the Wildcat, and defenses won’t know what to do.

Still, that’s putting a lot of hope on Dixon’s shoulders, and judging by last season, I’m not so sure you can count on him.

The offense will be much better off with him in the mix, especially since the new no-huddle will wear players down quickly. But I don’t know how long Dixon will be content as second fiddle.

Position grade: B