If anyone's going to benefit from Rice's intellectual brutality movement, it should be the Owl running backs. In 2017 the Owl offense was predicated on lots of pre-snap motion followed post snap ineptitude.
Running back depth isn't an issue for Rice. Emmanuel Esupka, Austin and Aston Walter and Nahshon Ellerbe all come back and even with the loss of Samuel Stewart, Mike Bloomgren will have choices. Ellerbe, a rising junior from Frisco and Trinity Christian, is one our Picks to Pop for the 2018 Owls.
David Bailiff's staff used Ellerbe to return kickoffs and punts in 2016 and 2017, but last season Bailiff set Ellerbe lose on offense as well. The result was a team-leading 409 yards and 4.81 yards a carry. Ellerbe also led the Owls in rushing touchdowns with six. The Owl's offense wasn't anemic rushing even though they were awful throwing. The Owls ranked 38th in the FBS in rushing, 119th passing. Expect more of the same with the uncertainty at quarterback. The difference is Bloomgren's approach should be a welcome change for Ellerbe et al.
So what does Ellerbe bring to the table, let's take a look.
Running backs tend to get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go poorly. Darren McFadden became a thousand yard rusher behind the Dallas Cowboy's offensive line. Most saw McFadden as a bust in Oakland. Great backs tend to play behind great offensive lines. Bad offensive lines make great backs average. Scheme also matters. Every offensive coordinator will preach the virtues of physical football in August, less and less every year will hold to those principles in November.
If Mike Bloomgren and offensive line coach Joe Ashfield can transform Rice's group of offensive linemen into a gang of Stanford style maulers, 2018 goes swimmingly. If not, the Owls will fawn for 2017. Nahshon Ellerbe is the kind of back that will benefit from the change in scheme and style.
Ellerbe is efficient. I played with a guy who belonged to the local Church of Christ, a denomination known for an absence of musical instruments in church and their condemnation of dancing. This guy was athletically talented, but he also vamped like he was the second coming of Walter Payton, juking, spinning, bouncing, and running twenty yards to gain three. Our offensive line coach was known to yell out "Hey Bobby; you're Church of Christ, stop dancing!" This was the magical early 90s when high school coaches could and regularly did openly mock religious preferences. They called it coaching, and we were all thankful for it. #Blessed
Ellerbe has no such vamping tendencies, he gets north-south, and when he does get the edge, he gets there efficiently.
Last season, Rice ran between the tackles as often as I break out the Yoga mat. Ellerbe however at 5-9, 210 has the mindset and leg drive to get in between the tackles efficiently. Here's Ellerbe running into the box and turning a two-yard gain into six. His legs don't stop. That leg drive will turn a lot of short gains into decent runs.
Here are two examples of Ellerbe finishing runs, the first, Ellerbe uses his offhand and shoulder to end a run violently. If defensive backs are going to get a shot in, make them earn the trip, those finishes buy yards later in games.
Here's another nice finish or lean. The defensive back makes contact at the 41 and Ellerbe drives him seven yards upfield. Low man wins, but the violent man conquers.
The Owls kick off their 2018 season at home against Prairie View.