While quarterback is often considered the most important position in football, it could be argued that in Bill Snyder's offense, the running back is just as important. Snyder's offense depends on a solid ground game to maximize time of possession. He needs a running back that can grind out consistent yardage while limiting turnovers. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, this year's stable of running backs consists of a true freshman, two sophomores that have never seen the field and a senior with only 11 carries on his resume.
In four years with K-State, John Hubert carried the ball 599 times for 2,993 yards. He averaged five yards per carry in his career and only fumbled the ball 10 times. He was the quintessential Snyder running back. Tough, reliable, consistent and productive. Last year was the best season of his career. He finished with 1,048 yards and averaged 5.3 per carry, both career highs. He had only one fumble, the lowest number in his four years.
Hubert's reliability through the years made the existence of additional running backs almost unnecessary. Over the past three seasons, Hubert carried the ball nearly eighty percent of the time it was ran by someone other than the quarterback. Of the 232 carries by a non-QB in 2013, Hubert had 198. Twenty-four of the remaining 34 carries were handled by fellow departed running back Robert Rose. The only running back on the current roster that had a carry last season was DeMarcus Robinson, who had five carries for 20 yards.
DeMarcus Robinson came to Kansas State in 2010 as a four-star from Wichita Northwest. Despite his small stature, he was touted as a downhill runner with above-average strength and elusiveness. Though these things make him sound like a winner in the Snyder system, concerns about his abilities in pass protection and as a receiver have kept him on the bench. Robinson was considered the front-runner to replace Hubert entering spring ball, but injury concerns allowed sophomores Charles Jones and Jarvis Leverett to sneak in more spring snaps.
Glenn Gronkowski played in every game in 2013 at fullback but only recorded one carry for no yards. He was an effective backfield blocker and an explosive receiver, with five catches on the year for 194 yards and three touchdowns. Seniors Zach Nemechek and Adam Weber will serve as Gronk's backups.
Charles Jones is a 2012 commitment who redshirted that year and saw no action in 2013, and the same can be said for sophomore fullback Austin Katsorelos.
What are Bill Snyder and Dana Dimel going to come up with here? That's the burning question of the season, and one which could very well make or break things for the Wildcats in 2014. With the team's leading returning rusher being Jake Waters, decisions must be made.
The conventional wisdom is that there will be no featured back this season, with Snyder instead relying on a rotation. That's obviously something that will change in a heartbeat if anyone seizes the job, but it's almost certain that several backs are going to get ample opportunities in the season opener and, later, against Texas-El Paso. The problem for the Wildcats is that there are two critically important games in between those two contests.
The front-runners are Robinson, Jones, and Leverett -- in no particular order. Jones saw most of the first-team action in the spring game, but Snyder insists that this doesn't indicate anything.
Robinson, a senior, has the most experience in the system, but as mentioned there are concerns about his ability to do all the important things Snyder values other than actually running with the football. That said, it seems as though he's the front-runner for the job, and recent comments by Snyder indicate that perhaps those concerns have been addressed. "A couple of other guys are going to make it competitive, so DeMarcus is going to have to continue to perform as well as he can." That, in Bill Snyder-speak, is about as close as you're going to get to "he's our starter until someone beats him."
Leverett's speed is his best asset, having been his high school's track MVP as a sophomore sprinter. He also proved his value to the coaching staff in 2012, earning the Red Raider Award for his scout team contributions. Leverett ran for 69 yards on 14 touches in the spring game, which was actually a better performance than Jones on a per-carry basis.
Jones had 73 yards on 20 carries in April, which led both teams in terms of pure yardage.
Outside of those three, there's also a very good chance that the usual single-fullback set with Gronkowski might be a disguise for allowing Gronk to run tailback-oriented plays, and there's always the question of whether incoming freshman phenom Dalvin Warmack will see the field at all in 2014. Warmack is, per the coaching staff themselves, still a few steps behind the returning ball carriers. That's an indication that he won't see the field early, and if that's the case then it's almost certain he won't see the field late either unless the committee paradigm is an operational disaster. Wildcat fans are, understandably, excited to see what Warmack can do -- but if it ain't broke, there's no need to fix it when leaving Warmack on the sidelines in 2014 gives K-State four full years of his services after a year of bulking up and learning the system.
Warmack isn't the only incoming running back this year, of course. He's just the only one who has any real shot at playing time. Joining Warmack in this year's freshman class are scholarship fullback Winston Dimel, son of Dana. Dimel isn't just a nepotism signing; Scout rated him as the 14th best fullback recruit in the nation. Dimel has quality pass-catching ability, and also saw action at tight end for Manhattan High. His primary issue is that he's not Glenn Gronkowski. Three walk-ons will also toil in obscurity this season: Justin Silmon from Tulsa Union, Levi Morss from LaCrosse, Kansas, and David Authier from Fort Worth Bishop Nolan.
There is a somewhat inherent desire on the part of fans to be able to focus on one guy as the guy. It's nearly inescapable. But the coaching staff seems confident in the committee approach heading into 2014, with the idea being that each of the potential candidates brings something different to the table and that all of them are ready to play. The benefits: opposing defenses will have to prepare for multiple styles of running, and in the process the amount of game film for each, as well as wear and tear, will be reduced.
On the other hand, the legendary Whitey Herzog once observed that the more often you change pitchers trying to get the right matchup, the more chance you have of calling on the guy who just doesn't have his stuff that day. The same can obviously be true for a running back, and constantly shuffling them in and out can prevent any of them from truly building a rhythm on a given day.
There's one other important aspect to this, however. The candidate running backs are, to a man, supportive of both the system and each other, and are saying all the right things about sharing snaps. They seem to feel this gives the team the best chance of success, and if they can't individually steal the full-time job because they're all performing well, it's a win-win situation.
Can K-State succeed on the ground without any one guy having a monster season? It's happened before, and if the "problem" Snyder and Dimel are having is that all the guys they have on hand are performing too well for them to make a decision, it's a good problem to have.