As the 100 Days to Kickoff series nears the midway point, this week will feature a series of position previews across the roster. These articles will go position-by-position to look at players that have departed, players that return from a year ago, new faces at the position, and the overall outlook for the 2017 season. The overall goal is to examine what the depth chart will look like next season and look at realistic expectations for each position group.
Half of Tech’s one-two punch at B-back is gone, and so is the veteran third-stringer from last year’s team. Losing that kind of depth is never an ideal situation, particularly for a team breaking in a new starting quarterback. However, there’s good news: 2016 breakout star Dedrick Mills is back for his second season, and a couple other promising prospects have emerged, so—health permitting—Tech should head into the 2017 campaign armed with a star in the backfield and a decent amount of depth behind him.
The biggest loss from a year ago was Marcus Marshall, who led the team in rushing as a true freshman in 2015 and was a key contributor as a sophomore (and made several starts while Mills was injured or suspended). Marshall’s best assets were his speed and vision—even as a freshman, he was able to spot running lanes and burst forward to reach the second level. For most of his career he had a tendency to go down quickly after contact, but when he was given three starts at the tail end of the 2016 campaign, something clicked into place and Marshall’s true potential began to show. Perhaps the best example was his final carry in a Tech uniform: with Tech driving against UGA in the final minutes, Marshall moved Tech into the red zone with a bruising 13-yard run that saw him break three tackles and drag a fourth tackler for several yards. It was a crucial play that helped to set up Qua Searcy’s eventual game-winning run.
Marshall has enrolled at James Madison, where he’ll be eligible to play this fall. It’s closer to his hometown of Raleigh, and he’ll be following in the footsteps of his father Warren, a former JMU running back who holds the school record for career rushing yards.
The other departure from the B-back corps is Marcus Allen, who had a bit of a roundabout career. He started out at B-back in 2012, moved to linebacker the following offseason, moved to wide receiver later on... and finally returned to B-back before the 2015 spring game after injuries obliterated Tech’s depth at the position. Allen’s on-field career was fairly uneventful—he had 35 carries in 2015 and 10 this past season, plus some special teams work—but he picked up an industrial engineering degree along the way, so he’ll be just fine.
The good news is that this guy is back:
That’s a 100% genuine highlight reel. Dedrick Mills is so good at trucking opposing defenders that it feels like they’re not even there.
Without question, Mills is the starter as long as he’s healthy and on the field. That was the big issue for him a year ago, after all—he was very productive when he was on the field, but he was suspended for three games and missed a fourth with an injury. If he avoids trouble off the field and stays healthy on it, he is more than capable of becoming Tech’s first B-back with 1,000 rushing yards since Anthony Allen in 2010.
Behind Mills, the Jackets have a pair of capable (if inexperienced) reserves in redshirt sophomores Quaide Weimerskirch and KirVonte Benson. Both sat out in 2015 while rehabbing injuries, and with Mills, Marshall, and Allen atop the depth chart last year, neither saw much action at B-back. Weimerskirch is more of a pure power back while Benson has better open-field speed; the latter showed off his speed in the spring game, breaking off an early 35-yard run and finishing with 57 yards on nine carries.
The last returning B-back is former walk-on Brady Swilling, now a redshirt senior. Swilling has bounced between quarterback and B-back as a reserve without seeing a ton of action, but he did have one of the highlights of the spring game, a 61-yard reception from fellow walk-on Chase Martenson that Swilling took to the house for the eventual game-winning score.
Tech added two running backs in the 2017 recruiting class, one or both of whom could end up at B-back. Jerry Howard, a 6-foot-0, 215-pound back from Rock Hill, SC, has been listed at B-back and has an ideal build for the position. While he’ll have work to do in fall camp to crack the rotation, it’s very possible that Howard contributes in his rookie season. After all, Tech’s leading rusher in each of the past two seasons has been a true freshman B-back.
The other backfield signee, Jordan Ponchez-Mason, could play either running back position. He seems more likely to end up at A-back, but if he lines up at B-back, he too will get a chance to work his way into the rotation in fall camp.
What to Expect
As previously mentioned, this is Mills’ show first and foremost. Expect him to get the lion’s share of the snaps and carries throughout the season. Whoever ends up starting at quarterback will lean on the sophomore heavily to move the ball downfield, and if Mills remains healthy, he should run up some solid rushing totals in 2017.
The backup job is a virtual tie between Benson and Weimerskirch heading into the fall. It may simply come down to which player’s skillset is more useful, and in that regard, Benson would generally have the edge. Weimerskirch’s power would come in handy in a number of situations, but he would be most useful in short-yardage and goal-line situations, while Benson’s breakaway speed would be a major asset in almost any game situation.
It’s possible that Howard makes a huge splash in fall camp and pushes Mills for playing time. That scenario is extremely unlikely, but... well, Mills himself snatched the starting job from Marshall in fall camp a year ago, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Realistically, Howard will not be taking the starting B-back job away, but the true freshman will have plenty of opportunities to move up the depth chart and earn some snaps. If he is unable to move up to at least third on the depth chart and doesn’t find a spot on special teams, he will likely end up redshirting.
Projected Depth Chart
- Dedrick Mills (So.)
- KirVonte Benson (RS So.)
- Quaide Weimerskirch (RS So.)
- Jerry Howard (Fr.)