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State of the Position: FSU’s running backs

Welcome back to our Florida State postseason series reviewing the Seminoles’ tumultuous 2018 campaign, in which we’re working through each position group, taking a look back at what was as well as glancing forward to what the future may hold. Up next: the running back position.

2018’s Personnel

Returning a 1,000-yard back? Check. Returning a senior leader? Check. Five-star with a lot of potential? Check.

Running back was easily one of FSU’s most talented position groups entering the 2018 season, but scheme change and offensive line struggles placed great demands on the stable of running backs. The backfield group returned plenty of experience, led by Cam Akers. Akers was 1a to senior Jacques Patrick’s 1b. Promising five-star Khalan Laborn exploded onto the scene with his spring game performance. Unheralded junior Amir Rasul was expected to bring some much-needed speed. Freshman Anthony Grant was named time and time again in preseason scrimmage reports as a back about whom the staff was excited. Redshirt-freshman Zaquandre White, who was highly regarded coming out of high school, was moved to linebacker.

The focus of this review will be on Akers and Patrick, who dominated the workload, but also touch on Laborn, Grant, and Rasul, who flashed at different times. The expectation is that all running backs will return except for Patrick, who has exhausted his eligibility.

When Willie Taggart took over at Florida State, he talked about lethal simplicity and running the football. We knew from the very beginning that this offense would rely heavily on the stable of talented running backs that were available. The gulf coast offense uses zone and gap runs as its base schemes. For a number of reasons, some preventable and some not, everything in the running game stopped well before it ever started. Some steps were taken, but this group did not produce as well as it should have. It is easy, and appropriate, to point to the offensive line for the lack of production by the running backs, but this position group did not handle the scheme change well.

The Heart of the Offense

The running backs are the heart of the gulf coast offense. They are the beginning and the end, so when the running back group combines for 1,128 yards on 283 carries, then your offense has a problem. The group contributed 284 receiving yards on 42 catches as well. The next concern is that the running backs accounted for 11 total touchdowns. On the surface, this is as bad as it sounds. This is a season after Akers rushed for 1,025 yards alone, so the decrease in production is very disappointing. Ideally, this offense needs to run through the running back group and when it doesn’t, there will be continued struggles.

Not all of the running back issues were of their own making though. Anyone who watched Florida State football this year knows that the offensive line was a massive problem, and it impacted the ability of this offense to be functional. Far too often, FSU run plays were stopped before they ever started. Akers and Patrick were hit in the backfield numerous times per game, which is never a good thing. Some of these hits occurred due to poor offensive line play, but other times due to missed reads by the quarterbacks.

This very talented backfield shares responsibility though in its struggles. Akers spent the season trying to get acclimated to the new scheme and showed a lack of patience and vision that you expect from a feature running back. He was called out by Taggart on a number of occasions for leaving yards on the field due to his lack of discipline at the position. Patrick, a great effort player, simply didn’t fit the scheme and was relegated to backup duties. Patrick is a downhill runner who was able to take advantage of what was there, but unfortunately that wasn’t much. There was potential for the running back numbers to be better, but not by much.

The group showed an ability to produce in the passing game. The offensive staff, when able, sent the backs out on wheel, seam, and arrow routes trying to create mismatches. Akers, Patrick, and Laborn all caught the ball well and were able to make plays afterward. Laborn, especially, flashed greatness on his only play of the season before injuring his knee. Being a receiving threat is a must for this offense. In pass blocking, Patrick in particular performed quite well.

Who’s Next?

Next season, Akers will be a draft-eligible junior and should again lead the running back group. There have been rumors of Akers transferring, but that would not make much sense. Akers is a true stud in the backfield, but he must continue to improve his vision and patience. Laborn will be a redshirt sophomore coming off of a gruesome knee injury. Grant will be a true sophomore who should see an uptick in opportunities. Lastly, Amir Rasul returns as a senior and capable backup.

On paper this backfield is as talented as any, but they will need to continue to buy into the coaching of Taggart and running backs coach Donte Pimpleton. Expectations should be minimal heading into next season but with improved offensive line play, production could be much improved. At this point, FSU does not have any RB commits and is not expected to sign one.

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