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Cincinnati Bearcats Running Backs Triumphed Over Injuries In 2014

From 2008 through 2011 the Cincinnati Bearcats running game was #blessed to have one of the best running backs in school history be the main attraction. Some people are partial to Demarco McCleskey, those who saw Reggie Taylor are among his most emphatic boosters. For me it is Isaiah Pead, and his three year run as the featured back was one of the best stretches ever for the UC running game.

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October 3rd, 2008 Huntington, West Virginia -- The Cincinnati Bearcats have traveled 150 or so miles east through rural Kentucky and/or (depending on your route) rural Ohio to take on the Marshall Thundering Herd. It was the second game of a home and home series, both of which the Bearcats won rather comfortably. What's relevant to this topic is an episode that happened deep into the fourth quarter of that game.

A young freshman running back had been vocal with Brian Kelly's coaching staff in the week prior to the Marshall game about his lack of playing time and by extension carries. Little did he know that he was going to get his wish. On what turned out to be the Bearcats last drive of the game Isaiah Pead entered the game. He got the ball and immediately ripped off 13 yards. After the three subsequent runs produced another first down Pead ripped off a 16 yard gain on first and 10 and, as I recall it* immediately started to tap his helmet for a blow. He didn't get one, instead he got five more carries and got the Bearcats to the Marshall 12 yard line. From there he fumbled on his 11th consecutive carry of the drive. Isaiah wasn't heard from again until the Syracuse game in late November. Isaiah became a great player, and he carried the Bearcats running game to new heights. But as a freshman he was just a freshman.

*Unfortunately this is not on video, and thus can't be completely verified, but this is how I remember it.

George Winn really sustained that peak for another year in 2012. In fact that is one of the best single seasons from a UC running back, but the bottom dropped out in 2013. It didn't really seem to matter what Tion Green, Hosey Williams and Ralph David Abernathy did, the running game was an incoherent mess.

With every back of significance coming back in 2014, along with 5 of the Bearcats 8 rotation linemen from a year ago, it was reasonable to expect a jump in production. Eventaully that's what happened, but there was drama and intrigue in getting to that point. Before the peak the Bearcats  struggled to run the football early in the season. Even with Hosey Williams and Tion Green healthy the running game was a slog. After three games the Bearcats ranked 112th in rushing according to Football Outsiders S&P metrics. It got worse as the Bearcats running game was a complete nonentity in lopsided losses to Memphis and the Miami Hurricanes.

All the while the injuries were piled high at the position. Tion Green was lost for the year before the Memphis game. Hosey Williams was effectively out for the year after that self same game. It was at that point that Eddie Gran had to look deep down his depth chart.

Sitting in spot #3 was Rod Moorea highly regarded running back playing for JUCO power East Mississippi C.C., As a Junior Moore languished at corner back for a season before being switched in the off season back to his preferred running back spot.

In the #4 spot was Mike Boone, ostensibly a wide receiver according to the recruiting services. Boone played that position for Baker County High School because the WIldcats had a quarterback and wanted to throw the ball around. But he was a frequent recipient of pop passes and jet sweeps. It wasn't hard to see that he had great running instincts on those plays. The Bearcats coaches saw a running back where others saw a receiver. They thought they had made a steal and wanted, desperately, to red shirt Boone. Fate intervened, his red shirt was burned in the Miami game, after Hosey Williams gamely tried to give it a go but couldn't. He saw garbage time reps against SMU and scored his first touchdown in that game. It wasn't until the USF game that Boone was truly unleashed upon a decent USF run defense to spectacular effect.

It's possible to overstate the importance of Mike Boone and Rod Moore in turning around the Bearcats previously moribund running game, but you have to walk a very long way to get to that point. Boone in particular I am completely, shamefully, enamored with. Those two were big down the stretch, but you have to give Darren Hiller some credit for his willingness to shelve the Bearcats power looks for more inside/outside zone stuff. The zone scheme is much friendlier to backs learning on the job, it also better suited the skill sets of Moore and Boone.

Anyone who has been a college football fan, or even a college basketball fan for a long time knows the impulse. That's why national signing day is always one of the biggest traffic days of the year for our site. We want that New New Thing. I know that impulse, and I try to fight it as best I can. I would like to think I manage to do so fairly well, but only you dear reader can tell me whether I succeed in that.

Still, even while trying to suppress my infatuation with the New New Thing I am still down for the cause with Mike Boone. Plainly stated, I think he has Isaiah Pead like potential. Mike Boone isn't a like for like copy of Pead, he is a different sort of back with the football, more powerful, perhaps a step or two slower, but just as explosive out of his breaks and as versatile for the offense.

The one thing that Pead and Boone have in common? Incredible vision, and the fundamental footwork to get to wherever their eyes tell them to go. Just watch this, and then scroll to the 2:15 mark of the above video. Please tell me that I am not the only one who see's similarities. The best thing about Mike Boone is his vision and his footwork. Here is how I described the big run at the 2:15 mark embedded above back in January.

It's easy to see those creases develop, to see the hole form and the opportunity exploited when you are watching at home, or in my case on my laptop.We have the benefit of stopping, starting and pausing the action at will. We can stare at the screen, or zoom in if need be, figuring out where all the chess pieces are moving based mostly on where they end up. But what's impossible to know in doing this is just how quickly a running back has to process all that information and incorporate that information to movements. Do me a favor; snap your fingers three times as fast as you can and think, really think, about the amount of time that elapses from the first snap to the third. That's about how much time Boone has to process everything.

Boone gets the hand off from Munchie Legaux and presses his aiming point, there is no hole. (SNAP!) he takes three lightning quick steps while unconsciously lowering his center of gravity with each step, all the while he is scanning his field of vision for green space, on his third stutter step he looks right and see's green. (SNAP) He puts his left foot in the ground and explodes with a 45 degree step to the right. He is through the hole, the only object in his immediate path is the safety. The safety who is running way too fast and is too out of control to breakdown and make a play all he needs is a little shake. (SNAP).

The long and the short of it is that Mike Boone, and to a lesser extent, Rod Moore were able to create big plays out of dead plays in ways that Tion Green and Hosey Williams simply couldn't. That's why Boone will more than likely remain entrenched on top of the Bearcats running back depth chart when the season starts. He wants the ball at every opportunity, and especially where it matters most in the red zone. That's rare in a freshman, even those that become great, just ask Isaiah Pead. Mike Boone is just one more reason to get excited about the Bearcats offense in 2015.