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Louisville football preview: Which RB will emerge as “the guy?”

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With Lamar Jackson gone, more production will be needed from the RB position in 2018.

Louisville v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If last week’s preview of the wide receivers was the sexiest, this week’s is the Cards’ offensive Ugly Betty – the running backs. With the departure of Lamar Jackson, Reggie Bonnafon, Malik Williams and Jeremy Smith, the Cards find themselves tasked with replacing 82% of last year’s rushing production.

The key question surrounding this year’s rotating cast is not only who will step up, but who will remain healthy enough to do so? Both Dae Williams and Colin Wilson suffered ACL tears in 2017, and none of Louisville’s scholarship running backs played in the spring game due to injuries. The challenge facing the Cards’ backfield in 2018 is one that yields opportunity, as a true leader is bound to emerge.

Returning 2017 Stat Leaders

Dae Williams (rs-sophomore): 38 carries, 235 yards, 6.2 yds/carry, 3 touchdowns

Trey Smith (rs-junior): 21 carries, 124 yards, 5.9 yds/carry

Colin Wilson (rs-freshman): 6 carries, 69 yards, 11.5 yds/carry

Tobias Little (rs-sophomore): 9 carries, 27 yards, 3.0 yds/carry

Harry Trotter (junior): 4 carries, 27 yards, 6.8 yds/carry

The Starters

Dae Williams returns as the team’s leading rusher from a year ago and the likely candidate to solidify himself as RB1. Although a torn ACL caused him to miss the first half of the season, the redshirt sophomore finished the final six games averaging an admirable 6.2 yards per carry. Nagging foot injuries sidelined him again during spring ball, but breakout performances against Virginia (15 carries, 88 yards, one TD), and Kentucky (6 carries, 62 yards, one TD) give reason to believe that when healthy, Williams is capable of rising above a crowded backfield and shouldering a majority load. Fingers crossed he can stay off the training tables in 2018.

The other back likely to contribute as a starter is Trey Smith. The 6-0, 220-pound Mississippi native returns as one of the more experienced backs on the roster, having appeared in 11 games last season and all 13 games in 2016. He finished the 2017 campaign with 21 carries for 124 yards.

The Up & Comers

Ask Head Coach Bobby Petrino, and he’ll tell you that redshirt freshman Colin Wilson is “probably the most talented of the group as far as his size and speed and agility.” Ranked as a four-star recruit by 247Sports and Rivals.com, the 6-1, 230-pound bruiser was formerly the second ranked running back out of Florida and the second-highest recruit in Louisville’s 2017 class. During his scholastic career, Wilson rushed for 3,931 yards and 67 touchdowns while accounting for 4,355 all-purpose yards. Appearing in his first year with the team, he finished with six rushes for 69 yards.

There’s a lot to like about this guy but be cautiously optimistic; in his short time with the Cards, he’s suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Murray State and previously underwent surgery to have a plate inserted into his hand after breaking it during fall camp. It’s also worth noting that prior to arriving at Louisville, he suffered an ACL tear in his opposite knee late in his junior year.

Another guy poised to step into a larger role is Tobias Little. Originally a linebacker, Little made the switch to offense in 2017 and appeared in nine games as a fullback, where he demonstrated powerful blocking skills and an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. In April, Coach Petrino tabbed the redshirt sophomore as a running back and indicated he would have every opportunity to compete his way into the rotation. With injuries plaguing so many of the other backs previously mentioned, Little’s 13 carries for 77 yards and a score during the spring game highlighted a glimpse of his potential.

The Reserves

Rounding out the talent pool are juniors Harry Trotter and Malik Staples, and redshirt freshmen Maurice Burkley and Taveon Graves. Trotter is the only other back to have logged any rushing stats in 2017, and Staples has appeared mostly as a contributor on special teams. Both Burkley and Graves have yet to see significant action in a Cardinals uniform.

The Newcomers

The 2018 class welcomed the addition of Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall into the backfield as guys known for their impressive quickness and agility. Hawkins, who played slot receiver and returned kicks in addition to his running back duties, was ranked as last year’s no. 21 all-purpose back in the nation by 247Sports. He finished his scholastic career with over 4,000 yards rushing, 40 touchdowns and has been timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

Hassan Hall is a three-star athlete from Georgia, where he starred as a two-way starter for Maynard Jackson High. He boasts a 10.3 second 100-meter dash and completes the group of backs on the depth chart.