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FPM: Running backs/fullbacks

As part of TheUConnBlog's 2010 Season Preview Month-ish, we're counting down the days to the UConn football team's opener against Michigan. Today, we're previewing the Huskies' running back and fullbacks. You can read all our Football Preview Month-ish posts here.

Previously on TheUConnBlog: No player was going to replace Donald Brown, not after the UConn running back tore his way through the program's record books in 2008, inside draw by inside draw.

But two players almost did.

It may take a long time -- if it ever happens -- before another player replicate's Brown's junior season, in which he finished the best runner in college football (statistically) with a nation's-best average of 160.23 yards and 18 touchdowns, and was responsible more than 94 percent of the rushing in a UConn ground game that finished No. 13 in the nation.

However, the one-two combo of sophomore sparkplug Jordan Todman and the Andre Dixon Revival Tour didn't exactly fumble the handoff. Far from it.

Both players rushed for over 1,000 yards - Todman finished with 1,188; Dixon, 1,093 - and scored 14 touchdowns apiece for the Huskies' No. 39-ranked rushing attack. And while the team as a whole averaged almost 50 fewer yards per game, they did so rushing almost 5 percent less than the previous season and actually encouraging their quarterbacks to throw, as opposed to tucking it immediately after a five-step drop and running in shear terror: Despite missing four games, Tyler Lorenzen finished 2008 with almost as many rushing yards (284) as the then-freshman Todman (296); last season, Zach Frazer and Cody Endres combined for minus-125.

In fact, the progress made in moving away from the noodle-armed and toward moderately competent quarterbacking may have made an even bigger impact on the Huskies' running game than any one back ever could.

The success of Joe Moorhead in developing a real-life, no-joking passing game helped Husky backs in a way Brown never had, as UConn no longer faced as many five- and six-man fronts, allowing Todman and Dixon more free lanes through which to jitterbug. The success of the Huskies' passing attack (from No. 109 nationally to No. 61) led to small decrease in rushing plays, but as a whole, UConn's offense was far better off in 2009, and is now set up to take an even bigger year this season.

The weren't many accolades, records or eye-catching numbers. But the Huskies' ground game was still a success in 2009.

2010 Depth Chart:

Starter 2009 Stats Backup 2009 stats
RB Jordan Todman, JR 235 car, 1,188 yards, 14 TDs D.J. Shoemate, JR 2 car, 2 yards
FB Anthony Sherman, SR 1 car, 3 yards; 9 rec, 71 yards Bret Manning, SR N/A

 

2009 High Points:

1. In his final game, Andre Dixon pounds South Carolina for 126 yards and a touchdown to lead the Huskies to a 20-7 victory in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. It was the fourth time in seven games Dixon had rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown, and it also lifted the senior over the 1,000-yard mark - giving UConn two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history.

2. Todman leads the team with 130 rushing yards and two TDs (one on a 96-yard kickoff return), but Dixon caps off a program-defining win in South Bend with a four-yard touchdown scamper in the second overtime.

3. Dixon and Todman each top the 100-yard mark in three games - all wins, all on the road (at Ohio, Baylor, Notre Dame).

4. Todman rushes for career-highs in yards (162) and touchdowns (4) in a near-upset of Cincinnati.

2009 Low Points:

1. UConn is held to 72 rushing yards as the Huskies collapse at home against North Carolina and lose 12-10.

New faces: UConn has recruited well at running back over the last half-decade or so, perhaps better than any team in the conference aside from maybe West Virginia. But that didn't stop the Huskies from reaching across the country, into USC's back pocket for its latest one.

D.J. Shoemate, who transferred from Southern Cal for a better shot at getting carries and playing tailback full time, has more raw talent than any player the Huskies have ever brought into the fold. At least, he did in high school. As we noted when the news first dropped in July, Shoemate was rated by Rivals as the 98th-best player overall and No. 10 athlete coming out of Servite High (Anaheim, Calif.) in 2008.

Not to be overlooked, though, is freshman Jordan Huxtable. The former St. Charles North (Illinois) tailback doesn't even exist to most recruiting sites, but he also has a great pedigree. At least when it comes to sweater-wearing, having learned under famous obstetrician Cliff Huxtable in Brooklyn Heights.

All-time leaders:

CAREER

Rushing yards: 3,800 - Donald Brown (2006-08)

Touchdowns: 34 - Wilbur Gilliard (1992-95)

Carries: 698 - Donald Brown

SINGLE SEASON

Rushing yards: 2,083 - Donald Brown (2008)

Touchdowns: 22 - Walt Trojanowski (1945)

 Carrier: 367 - Donald Brown (2008)

Notable alumni: Donald Brown (Indianapolis Colts), Andre Dixon (Hartford Colonials), Terry Caulley (Hamilton Tiger Cats, CFL).

Our outlook: The Huskies roll into 2010 in a similar situation as last year, having to replace one of the most accomplished running backs in recent program history. But this time around, there are fewer doubts about the replacements.

Although he may not be receiving the type of hype Noel Devine or Dion Lewis are heading into the season, Todman has established himself as an upper-crust tailback in the Big East. Not only did he compile a hefty does of yardage and touchdowns as just a sophomore, he was also very consistent - he finished 2009 with five 100-yard games, only two games in which he failed to rush for more than 60 yards, and an ypc average of over five. And despite being listed at just 5-9, 190 pounds, he never missed a game in 2009 and failed to register double-digit carries just twice (not coincidentally, Dixon toted the rock 33 times in both games).

His versatility was also on full display in 2009, as his average of 25.3 yards helped lift UConn to the No. 9 kickoff return game in the country. Still, there are still more ways in which he can be utilized. Todman finished sixth on the team in receiving yards with 272 on 23 catches, but he could have easily had more. With Marcus Easley's sure hands no longer around, he may need to.

I'm confident that, despite his slender frame, Todman could have shouldered the load this season as a feature back, with Meme Wylie and Robbie Frey pitching in from time to time. But with Shoemate now in the fold, the Huskies once again boast a powerful one-two punch - perhaps an even better one than last year.

Although Shoemate has come to Storrs to be a true tailback and take handoffs, he can be so much more. Not only did he serve as a fullback in California, but he was also split out wide at times and is supposed to have the hands of a wideout (which means he's probably already UConn's best receiver). So unlike last year, when Todman and Dixon rarely ever took the field at the same time, be prepared to see both Todman and Shoemate together a lot, and not necessarily in the backfield.

Throw in fullback Anthony Sherman, a great blocker who in 2008 was three yards shy of being the Huskies' leading receiver (God, they were terrible), and you have one of the most versatile backfields in the conference. For a team that has a lot of options but no sure things at receiver, the trio is a nice comfort blanket for the team, especially Zach Frazer (and/or Cody Endres).

There's still a lot of uncertainty to Shoemate, a player with just two career carries to his name. Perhaps comparing him to Dixon, who already had an 800-yard season under his belt when he was asked to be Todman's backfield BFF, may be a bit much.

But even if Shoemate can't hack it as a runner, the Huskies can simply employ him in other ways and give his carries to Wylie or Frey, two capable runners who have been passed over time and time again.

The talent is there. UConn just needs to figure out how to use it all.

Position grade: A-