I was going to do a piece today further recapping the disappointing basketball season. But this is spring and there's football to talk about with spring practice starting. It's much more fun to talk about something optimistic rather than, well, the basketball team. So let's talk about the running back situation as the team enters spring drills.
2006 Starter - Tony Hunt
It's going to be hard to replace a guy who walked off the field in Tampa Florida as the second all time leading rusher in Penn State history. Hunt started every game the last three years and was the most consistent member of the offense. At times in 2006 he was the entire offense.
The 2007 Contenders
Sr - Austin Scott - It's now or never for Scott. He came to Penn State with some amazing high school football statistics in 2003. After Larry Johnson's magical season of 2002 everyone anticipated Scott would pick right up where LJ left off. But things didn't work out that way. He shared time with Hunt in 2003 through 2005 unable to establish himself as an every down tailback. But when Hunt went down in the 2006 Orange Bowl Scott stepped in and had a breakout game going over 100 yards rushing. It appeared he was poised to make an impact in 2006, but an injury during spring practice forced him to redshirt the season away. Now he's back and reportedly played extremely well on the scout team last year.
Sr - Rodney Kinlaw - Kinlaw was a solid contributor at the tailback position in 2005. He presents a nice change of pace to the bruising Hunt and Scott, but he has never started a game. Like Scott, injuries plagued Kinlaw in 2006. He still ran back kickoffs and served as backup to Tony Hunt. Now he has one more chance to earn a starting position.
Fr - Evan Royster - Royster was a somewhat less heralded freshmen in a group that included Maurice Evans, Pat Devlin, Chris Bell, A.J. Wallace, and Antonio Logan-El. Royster redshirted in 2006, but probably would have been the third option at running back had Hunt or Kinlaw been injured. The coaches supposedly loved Royster on the scout team last year. He pushed the defense hard and made an impression. Many people call him a complete running back.
Fr - Brent Carter - Like Royster, Carter was not highly touted when he arrived on campus. He redshirted in 2006. Not much is known about his abilities.
I suspect Austin Scott will emerge from spring as the starter. He paid his dues on the scout team last year and kept his mouth shut. Paterno loves that and was gushing about Scott in the weeks leading up to the Outback Bowl. Two things that always bothered me about Austin Scott were he blocking and pass catching ability. Tony Hunt lacked breakaway speed, but he caught passes and blocked very well. Scott needs to demonstrate he can do these things to play every down and make an impact.
The key for everyone is to stay healthy. We're dangerously thin at tailback, although not as thin as last year when it was just Hunt and Kinlaw. This could be a big if considering Scott, Kinlaw, and Royster all sustained some kind of injury last year. Be really worried if one or two of these guys get dinged in spring practice.
I suspect we'll see Scott be the starter on opening day. In fact, I think Scott will start every game in 2007 provided he stays healthy. But I think we'll see Royster get a lot of carries. Maybe 15 per game. If Scott falters or gets injured, I think the starting job will go to Royster and he will not give it up.
Overall we're in for a downgrade at running back this year. Scott hasn't proven he can carry the workload of a twenty carry game and stay healthy and Royster is a freshman. With Scott and Royster splitting time we may not see a 1000 yard rusher. But I don't see any reason why their combined stats can't add up to 1400 yards and 15 touchdowns.