Georgia Tech’s transition from a Flexbone to an Air Raid offensive scheme under new head coach Geoff Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude creates a unique position battle for the role of starting running back. The name “Air Raid” might seemingly imply that the ground game is merely an afterthought, but that couldn’t be further from the truth - in 2018, Patenaude utilized a balanced attack at Temple, with the Owls amassing 494 rushing attempts compared to 443 passing attempts. The ideal skill set of an Air Raid running back falls somewhere in between the traditional skill sets of what we called A-backs (small, faster guys with great pass-catching skills) and B-backs (larger, more powerful guys who typically ran in between the tackles) in the Flexbone. As a result, we’re left with no clear-cut answer as to who will earn the starting running back role this offseason, meaning this position battle is wide open.
Roles of a Running Back
In order to properly analyze each returning running back’s starter potential, we must first understand the key responsibilities of an Air Raid running back:
No matter how spectacular a running back is with the ball in his hands, he’ll hardly see the field if he’s a liability in pass protection. A competent pass-blocking back will excel both at reading the pass rush and executing his block, and failing to execute either component will leave the quarterback scrambling and cursing. It’s not the most glamorous aspect of the position, but effective pass blocking and giving the quarterback time to stay in the pocket is critical to the success of the offense.
It should go without saying that in an Air Raid offense, every skill position player needs to be able to catch the ball. The route tree for the running back isn’t as complicated as the receiver route tree, but he still must have a strong grasp of where the receivers will be as he looks for open zones to sit in as a check down. All of Tech’s potential starting running backs this season have a combined five career catches, so it’s not entirely clear right now who will make an impact as a pass-catcher.
Stretch the Field
Most importantly, and somewhat as an extension of pass catching, the running back must be able to stretch the field. This means the defense must consider him a threat at all times, both as a runner and a receiver. A back who can stretch the field forces cornerbacks to stay in the flats and makes linebackers think twice before drifting too far off the line of scrimmage. In essence, a back who stretches the field creates space for the rest of the team. It’s difficult to define each player’s “stretch the field” ability since it’s basically a combination of speed, agility, strength, and field awareness, but hopefully as the season progresses it will become obvious which players excel at it. For a perfect example of a player whostretched the field well, look no further than Temple’s 2018 running back (and 2019 Jacksonville Jaguars’ 5th-round draft pick) Ryquell Armstead.
Now let’s take a closer look at the players on Tech’s roster competing for the starting running back role this upcoming season. So far there isn’t a single player that stands out significantly from the pack, and it’s likely that we’ll see a two-man or three-man rotation in the backfield rather than a “bell cow” eating up the vast majority of the carries. It’s also important to note that much of this analysis is based on the 2019 spring game, meaning several players only have a small sample size of touches for us to consider.
6-1, 220 lbs, RS Sophomore
Jordan Mason was the co-starting B-back in 2018, leading all Yellow Jacket non-quarterbacks with 659 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s a smooth runner with great vision, and that vision helped him tally an impressive 6.1 yards per carry last year. In the spring game Mason started for the first-team offense, so at the moment we can assume the new coaching staff is impressed with his skill set and he’s currently at the top of the theoretical depth chart. He looked great catching the ball that night, hauling in 5 catches for 33 yards, but he also missed a crucial pass block on the Gold Team’s 2-point conversion at the end of the 1st Quarter. Mason’s biggest weakness last year was sometimes not being able to “finish the play” and pick up that extra 1-2 tough yards at the end of a run, but I’m optimistic he's been working on improving that during the offseason. If he can eliminate that from his game, he’s a strong contender to start the season as Tech’s top running back.
6-0, 215 lbs, Junior
Jerry Howard comes in as the only other running back on Tech’s roster with significant game experience, tallying 564 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground last year as the other co-starting B-back. Howard might be the most powerful runner on the team - his greatest strength is always falling forward and picking up the tough yards after contact. I think it could be difficult for Howard to excel as an every-down back in an Air Raid offense because he seems to lack the speed required to effectively stretch the field. However, I think he could still be a valuable asset to the team if utilized as a short-yardage specialist (essentially a fullback) where he can showcase the strongest aspect of his game.
5-11, 190 lbs, RS Freshman
Dontae Smith seemed destined to be the Jackets’ next great A-back before the departure of Coach Paul Johnson and the switch away from the Flexbone this past offseason. It’s clear why in 2018 Smith was ranked as the #21 all-purpose back in the country by 247Sports - he looks incredibly smooth on the field both running the ball and running routes. My biggest concern for him is that at 190 lbs he’s considerably lighter than Mason and Howard, which could make it more difficult to break tackles and pick up yards after contact. He does, however, seem like a legitimate threat to stretch the field as a runner and pass-catcher, and for that reason I think Smith will see a decent number of snaps in the running back rotation this season.
5-10, 195 lbs, RS Freshman
Christian Malloy was a prime candidate to step into a starting A-back role alongside Dontae Smith this season, but the switch to Air Raid has put him in a tough battle for playing time. He reminds me a bit of former Tech A-back Broderick Snoddy - he’s strong, tough, and fast (Malloy’s Hudl page lists his high school 40-yard dash time as 4.42 seconds). On the other hand, his running style isn’t quite as fluid as players like Mason and Smith, which may hinder his change-of-direction and route-running abilities. Still, Malloy’s speed is dangerous enough to warrant him getting serious consideration for playing time, and I hope we’ll see him get his chance on the field this fall.
5-10, 175 lbs, RS Senior
Omahri Jarrett has an uphill battle ahead of him. He showed in the spring game that he’s a tough, elusive runner, but his size is a major concern - weighing in at just 175 lbs, it seems doubtful that he’ll get many carries in 2019. However, if he can prove himself as a reliable pass-catcher, he may earn time on the field on passing downs and in two-back sets.
5-10, 210 lbs, Freshman
The wild card in this position battle is incoming freshman Jamious Griffin, a four-star recruit out of Rome, GA. Griffin is the highest rated running back recruit to come to the Flats since Jonathan Dwyer in 2007, and he has the potential to be an immediate impact player. Personally, I’d like to see Griffin redshirt this season rather than burning a year of eligibility on the first year of a rebuild. On the other hand, a player of his caliber probably feels he can contribute immediately and likely has no desire to spend a year on the bench. That will be up to the coaching staff to decide, but Griffin has insane potential and could potentially be one of the best players to come through this program. While I won't say it's likely, I wouldn’t be incredibly shocked if he ends up earning the starting role come Week 1.
It’s important to remember how much can change in the months between the spring game and the start of the regular season. Some players may add or lose weight to better fit the role they’re competing for; some players may get injured while others will return from injury; some players may start to grasp the new system better than others, especially as the coaches implement more complex concepts throughout the offseason. Considering all these players were recruited to play in a completely different scheme, we really don’t know anything for sure until the Jackets take the field against Clemson on August 29th. Whoever does line up in the backfield first that night, however, will forever have the bragging rights of being Georgia Tech’s first starting running back of those post-Flexbone era.