2019 Louisville Football Preview Part 7: Running Backs

Our final two previews for the 2019 Louisville football team will be focused on the backfield, starting with running backs. With the move to a new offense that will focus more on the running game, this position will likely see the biggest contributions on the entire team.

2018 Summary:

For the fourth straight season, Louisville was led in rushing by a quarterback. Malik Cunningham led the Cardinals with 497 yards and five touchdowns, despite coming off the bench for most of the 2018 season. Cunningham’s numbers were aided by two 100-yard games (129 against Western Kentucky, 100 against N.C. State), the only Cardinal to achieve a 100-yard rushing game in 2018. The totals marked the lowest for a leading rusher of a U of L team since 2009.

Amongst running backs though, freshman Hassan Hall led the way with 303 yards and three touchdowns. Trey Smith (50 carries, 263 yards, four touchdowns) and Jeremy Smith (45 carries, 229 yards) also saw frequent playing time at running back in 2018. Among running backs, Hall’s 303 yards was the lowest for a leading rusher from a U of L running back since at least 1964.

Much like almost everything else in Louisville’s freefall of a 2018 season, the rushing totals were perhaps the most staggering drop-off from 2017 to 2018. Louisville went from 13th in 2016 (242.2 rushing yards per game), to 15th in 2017 (245.1 yards per game), to 102nd last season (141.5 yards per game). Furthermore, the team averaged 4.2 yards per carry, tied for 76th in the FBS (down from 6.4 yards per carry in 2017, which was second in the FBS).

Key Departures: Jeremy Smith (graduated), Trey Smith (transferred), Colin Wilson (transferred)

Starter: Hassan Hall (sophomore)

Scott Satterfield’s offense at Louisville is going to rely on a heavy running game, if his five years as Appalachian State’s head coach is any indicator.

Year Rush Attempts Per Game Pass Attempts Per Game Total Plays Per Game
2014 46.7 26.9 73.6
2015 46.8 22.6 69.4
2016 43.5 25.7 69.2
2017 40.8 27.4 68.2
2018 41.5 24.5 66.1

Satterfield’s offenses ran the ball an average of 43.9 times across his five years at App State, which accounts for 63.3% of all his plays. It’s going to put a lot on emphasis on whoever is playing running back (and the offensive line, too) to make the most of their touches, and get Louisville into third-and-short opportunities.

When Satterfield was announced as the new head coach, I figured that the running back position would still be a three-headed attack with Hassan Hall, Trey Smith, and Colin Wilson. Smith and Wilson were bigger backs compared to the smaller, shiftier Hall, but had their uses. Smith was a decent north-south runner, and Wilson had the untapped potential as an every down back with his receiving ability. I could’ve seen all three splitting carries at a moderate clip, with Dae Williams occasionally seeing the field as well.

But with Trey Smith and Wilson transferring in the offseason, and Jeremy Smith using the final year of his eligibility, Hassan Hall has emerged as the undisputed RB1 in Satterfield’s offense. In terms of body type, he definitely fits the mold for the head coach’s system; both Darrynton Evans and Jalin Moore, who each had 1,000 yard seasons under Satterfield at Appalachian State, have identical body types to Hall (Evans at 5’11”, 200 lbs., Moore at 5’11”, 207 lbs.).

Hall has bulked up substantially since the start of the 2018 season. He started last year at around 178 pounds, but added nearly 20 pounds in the offseason that will help him shoulder the load as Louisville’s feature back. Additionally, more touches for the sophomore will make better use of the big play potential that Hall possesses on offense and on special teams, something that wasn’t utilized often enough last season.

Key Reserves: Javian Hawkins (R-Fr.); Dae Williams (R-Jr.); Maurice Burkley (R-So); Aidan Robbins (Fr.); Jalen Mitchell (Fr.)

Despite the departures, Louisville should still have a solid running back rotation for their new offense. Javian Hawkins will be a lock for RB2 behind Hassan Hall, as he is built similarly to Hall at 5’9″, 179 pounds. The Titusville, FL product only played in two games last season. Based on analyzing the Satterfield offenses at Appalachian State, it’s very likely that Hawkins will also get at least ten carries in most games; in every year except 2015, Appalachian State had at least two running backs that averaged at least ten carries per game.

Behind him, it’s essentially an open race to see who will be the RB3 behind Hall and Hawkins. Dae Williams will likely get the early lead on that position, as he has the most experience over Maurice Burkley and true freshmen Aidan Robbins and Jalen Mitchell. Williams scored two touchdowns in Louisville’s comeback win against Western Kentucky last September, but a wrist injury kept him out for the rest of the season after week four. If Williams can stay healthy, he’ll be the easy favorite for short-yardage situations, or even as a rotational back if Louisville wants to run power in their new running scheme.

Maurice Burkley has also been one of the top running backs on Louisville’s depth chart. He was projected as the RB3 when depth charts were revealed, and his work ethic was enough for him to earn a full scholarship this spring (along with Jack Fagot and Marshon Ford). Burkley made an appearance in all 12 games as a special teams contributor last season.

Louisville also has a pair of true freshmen that could see the field as well. Aidan Robbins was a three-star commit out of Manual High School in Louisville, and ranked as high as ninth overall in the state of Kentucky by ESPN.com. Jalen Mitchell was one of the late signees in Satterfield’s first recruiting class, and rushed for 1,407 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at Rockledge High School in Florida.

JK’s Takeaway:

After a drop of over 100 rushing yards per game from 2017 to 2018, Scott Satterfield will look to revitalize Louisville’s running game by running the football a lot. It won’t be surprising to see Satterfield run the ball two-thirds of the time all season, but the simplification of the offense could be what Louisville needs to get back on track in 2019.

One of the biggest questions for 2019 will be if Louisville can get a 1,000 yard rusher this season. They will be definitely bucking the trend among running backs, if they are able to do so. Only three U of L running backs (Michael Bush in 2005, Victor Anderson in 2008, and Bilal Powell in 2010) have rushed for over 1,000 yards since 2000. Louisville has had extremely good running backs throughout the 2000s and 2010s, but weren’t fortunate to have a guy break that plateau more often.

But Hall getting there will depend on two things: Louisville’s offensive line being consistent in run blocking for all four quarters, and avoiding costly fumbles.

If Louisville continues to roll with their starting offensive line of Mekhi Becton, Caleb Chandler, Cole Bentley, Robbie Bell, and Tyler Haycraft, they should be fine in run blocking. Louisville’s rushing offense actually improved substantially with Chandler in the lineup, and him paired with Becton will form a solid “strong side” that Hall can run behind.

Overall, I think Louisville’s running back group still has some promise. No one was able to get into a rhythm last year due to a constant rotation of backs throughout the season. But with a structure in place for the running backs and a total commitment to the running game, that should turn things around substantially. We shouldn’t expect a dramatic improvement like what Charlie Strong did for Bilal Powell in 2010, but it should be reasonable to expect this team to average at least, say, 170-180 rushing yards per game. If Louisville does that, then they will definitely be right at their win projection totals that Vegas has set, perhaps even run past it.

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