Fun fact, the Bearcats led the AAC in rushing in 2014, and they did so with their worst output on the ground since the disastrous 2010 season. It doesn't matter what stats you choose, the reality that UC was robustly average running the football is inescapable. 4.23 yards per carry was the worst mark since 2008 and 168 yards per game was the worst since 2010.
If you prefer advanced stats the Bearcats running game was ranked 83rd by Football Outsiders S&P+ far and away the worst mark* since the S&P+ started for the 2005 season. There are a couple of contributing factors that tamped down the running game in 2013. The lack of coherent identity running the football. The Bearcats tried to be a team that spread the field one play, ran the pistol the next, and powered the ball down the defense's throat for the last play. As a running team the Bearcats did a lot of things, but none of them well.
*UC's average rank in the running game the lifetime of S&P+? 48th. Average rank over the five seasons coming into 2013? 28th.
Injuries certainly took their toll as well. Dan Sprague is the only front line player who missed the season due to injury, but he wasn't the only one injured. Austen Bujnoch battled a broken foot for months, missing the UConn, Memphis and Rutgers, coming back for SMU, Houston and Louisville before finally subcuming to that injury against North Carolina. Sam Longo joined Bujnoch on the bench for the Belk Bowl. Key reserve Kevin Schloemer also missed time for the Bearcats last year.
The combination of injury based attrition along the offensive line and a scheme that forced the Bearcats to do too many things meant that whoever was running the football was going to have a hard time. Isiah Pead would have had some issue behind that front in that scheme. As it turned out the running backs did little to elevate the running game with their play. The end result was a running game that looked OK on paper, but was pretty dreadful to behold.
2014 should be better. Bujnoch, Longo and Andre Cureton are gone up front, but they are being replaced with veterans in Schloemer and Parker Ehringer. If the line can stay healthy, and they have done just that through fall camp,* they should give the backs more space.
*That's already an improvement over last year
The scheme is going to be simplified for 2014. Last year there were close to a dozen different blocking schemes, and that is just in the running game. They had the staples from all of the different schemes they employed. So from the pistol they had the foundational inside zone play, followed by slice (a designed cutback for the running back) and bluff (a rejiggering of the zone read).They used the arc block a lot (the pistol's version of the wham block) when they used the zone read. That is a lot of techniques to get down, and that's just for a formation and personnel grouping that was primarily a change of pace. On the year the Bearcats only used the pistol about 30 percent of the time. When they went jumbo it was another set of blocking schemes, power, counter, iso, outside zone and lead draw. Again that is a lot of things to learn for a secondary scheme.
The variations in technique and responsibilities included in running that many different schemes in the running game would be difficult to master in the NFL. That's factoring their limitless practice time, film study and interactions between players and coaches. At the college level with strict limits on coaching, football activities and practice time that's nigh on impossible.
Is it any wonder that the running game was better when the Bearcats spread out the defense with three and four wide receivers? When they spread the field the blocking schemes become simplified . It was stuff that everyone, from the backs to the line was comfortable with. That is where the 2014 Bearcats will start at, with the field spread and Gunner Kiel* in the shotgun flanked by a running back.
* the same inside and outside zone that UC ran to death under Butch Jones
It is the deepest wish of the staff that the back in question will be Tion Green. Hosey Williams is a fine running back in his own right; he is good between the tackles, has decent burst and runs with power. But if Tion puts it together Hosey doesn't have a hope of holding him off for the starting job. Tion has the most complete skill set of any UC running back on the team. Size, short area quickness, power, footwork, hands and outright speed...its all there.
Frustration comes from the fact that Tion has to date only shown flashes of his ability. For example the Temple game was one where he showed the whole package; 19 touches, 96 yards and two touchdowns. That was his breakthrough, and he followed it up with 21 carries and 62 yards in his next two games combined. That pretty neatly sums up the Tion Green experience through two seasons, a step forward immediately followed by two steps back.
The biggest part of the issue for Green is that he hasn't gained the full faith and confidence of the UC coaches. That comes down to fumbles and pass protection. Of the two the fumbles have been an issue longer for Green. He has had an unnerving tendency to put the ball on the turf at the worst time. His red zone cough up against SMU is indicative of the problems. He makes a fantastic read, hits the cutback hard, tries to break a tackle and in trying to break that tackle untucks the ball which pops out when he is hit.
This has to be Tion's year to put it all together and become the player he is capable of being. He isn't a precocious young buck anymore, he has been a regular contributor for a year and has been playing for two. He should put it together this year, and might just have to do it this year. Tion isn't assured another chance to grow into the featured back role with this team. Mike Boone has looked very promising this year as a freshman, and Tyler Boose and Joshuwa Holloman are very talented backs in their own right. When you combine that with the fact that Gunner and (presumably) every receiver of note will be returning in 2015 the running game could take a major backseat. In which case it wouldn't be unreasonable for Eddie Gran to ride with the youngsters next year if Green doesn't show more consistency this year.