Miami Hurricanes’ spring search for feature back heightens competition

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David Furones, South Florida Sun Sentinel
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Miami Hurricanes offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows the 162.5 rushing yards per game (67th nationally) or 4.2 yards per carry (72nd) his run game posted last year isn’t going to cut it. While it was an improvement from how Miami ran the ball in 2019 under Dan Enos, there’s still another step the team needs to take.

Lashlee has made it clear this spring he wants to change his approach from last year’s carry distribution among running backs Cam’Ron Harris, Donald Chaney Jr. and Jaylan Knighton to have one emerge as the team’s primary rusher that gets 20 touches a game. Last season, Harris led the way with 11.4 carries per game, Chaney averaged 6.2 and Knighton 5.8.

“That’s just my philosophy in general, and I think if you look at most of the great offenses around the country, that’s what they do, too,” said Lashlee on Thursday. “A running back has got to be able to get into a rhythm, just like a quarterback or anybody else. You got to have some consistency, and look, that doesn’t mean that all three aren’t vital, important.”

Nonetheless, it means that, come fall, one will be getting a significant uptick in workload while the other two see less action. But the backs kind of like it that way.

“Now that Coach is looking for a feature back, it just makes us [take a] step higher of us just going harder,” said Knighton of the competition this spring. “We’re just going hard. Everybody’s just keeping each other up. We’re all on the same page. We all want each other to win, so we all stay focused and grind every day.”

Chaney, on 560-AM’s Hurricane Hotline earlier this week, said the spring competition shows “what type of dog you have in you. It has to be about the beast you have inside. … We do all things together, but we all know what’s at stake.”

And the players agree with Lashlee’s philosophy.

“The more carries you have during a game, the more you’ll get in your groove,” Knighton said. “You can’t really get in your groove with six carries, seven carries. … As a feature back, yes, that’s a big deal because we need a feature back that can touch 20 times a game, and when we touch the ball 20 times a game, you’re going to get in your rhythm. When you get in your rhythm, everything is just going to flow.”

The two freshmen in 2020, Chaney and Knighton, excited fans with the flashes they showed last fall, but Harris, a junior, still led the group statistically. Harris averaged 5.1 yards per carry while Chaney had 4.7 and Knighton 4.

Chaney, earlier in the spring, noted that his footwork and pass protection have been points of emphasis coming off his first college season. Knighton, who said he likes to study San Francisco 49ers great Roger Craig, on Thursday pointed to pre-snap reads of the defense to be able to anticipate where the hole will open up once he gets the ball.

“Patience, I feel, is always a tough deal for a running back because sometimes they just want to get it and run, especially when they’re fast. There’s a timing element to the run game,” Lashlee said of what he preaches to his backs. “I don’t want them thinking a lot. I mean, they’re running backs. You want them to run and not get tackled and run where there’s grass. There’s a lot of instincts involved in that. We’re trying to make it as consistent as we can where there’s not a lot of constipation by analysis.”

Fifth-year center Corey Gaynor feels all three are getting up the field well in practice.

“I think they’re getting very vertical, and I think they’re running very hard,” he said. “Very pleased with all three of them.”

Lashlee stressed that one back’s increase in carries shouldn’t diminish the impact the others can make when they get their opportunities.

“I know that’s an easy headline to run with and say, ‘Oh, there’s only going to be one,’ but that’s not the case,” Lashlee said. “Everybody can have an impactful role. A guy might be banged up for a game and he doesn’t play, and the other guy gets 20-plus carries. At the end of the day, in a game situation, it’s not always, it’s not a must, so there may be a game next year where nobody has 20 carries and that doesn’t mean something terrible happened.”

Before the season, Miami will also welcome freshman running backs Thad Franklin, from Chaminade-Madonna, and Cody Brown.