Texas Tech Football: Kingsbury Should Feature Running Backs In 2017

LUBBOCK, TX - OCTOBER 10: Justin Stockton
LUBBOCK, TX - OCTOBER 10: Justin Stockton /

One of the most pleasant developments in the Texas Tech football season opening win over Eastern Washington was the production of the running backs.  This season, that position group looks far more equipped to contribute to the offensive workload.

One of the most underperforming position groups on the Texas Tech football team in 2016 was the running backs.  That group produced a mere 989 yards rushing and nine touchdowns a year ago in what was a noticeable regression from what the running game produced the previous two seasons.

In 2014 and 2015, Texas Tech had DeAndre Washington rush for 1,000 yards in each season to make the Red Raider ground attack a huge component of the offense.  That trend did not continue with Washington in the NFL last season.

But if the 2017 season opener is any indication, the Texas Tech running backs appear ready for a rebound.  In week one against Eastern Washington, the group amassed 176 yards collectively, more than in all but one game from 2016.

The difference this year appears to be greater balance in the skills each back can bring to the offense.  Unlike in 2016 when two smaller running backs, DaLeon Ward and Demarcus Felton were responsible for virtually all of the carries for the group, the 2017 running backs are more versatile with their skill sets.

For starters, 2017 JUCO signee Desmond Nisby brings a physical presence the Red Raiders have not had in the backfield since Bam Morris in the early 1990’s.  At 6-foot-1 and 235-pounds, Nisby is a violent and rugged runner capable of smashing his way through defenders.

Unlike most Texas Tech running backs in the “Air Raid” era, Nisby does not look to make tacklers miss but seeks to punish them for getting in his way.  When the Texas Tech offense was struggling to get going in the first quarter against EWU, Nisby’s ability to gain tough yards between the tackles brought energy to the team and the stadium while also softening up the Eagle defense.

When Nisby was able to have success, Eastern Washington was forced to respect the Texas Tech run game meaning the Eagles brought their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage.  Using play-action passes, Kingsbury was able to exploit the Eagles’ respect of Nisby’s powerful ground attack to hit two long touchdown passes that broke the game open.

Nisby averaged 9.2 yards per carry as he bowled through the helpless EWU defense.  He led the team with 57 yards rushing and ignited the Red Raider offense, proving that the hype surrounding him during fall camp was warranted.

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Another change in the 2017 run game appears to be the return to form of senior Justin Stockton.  The San Antonio native had his worst season in 2016 when injuries rendered him an afterthought in the offensive game plan.

But Stockton got the start on Saturday and turned in a promising performance.  He rushed eight times for 47 yards and two touchdowns including the first score of the season.

A year ago, Stockton did not have more than 34 rushing yards in any game and he did not record a rushing touchdown all season.  More importantly, he showed a willingness to run off tackle.  Rather than trying to turn every carry into a sprint to try to get around the edge of the line of scrimmage, Stockton was effective at turning the ball up-field and running north-to-south as he did on his first touchdown rush.

He brings a home run threat to the ground game with his break-away speed and if he can be more consistent this year Stockton will make the Texas Tech running game more dangerous.

Complimenting Nisby and Stockton was another 2017 JUCO signee, Tre King.  The Kansas native was effective in limited work with 17 yards and a touchdown on just four carries.

At 5-foot-11 and 190-pounds he is similar in build to Felton and Ward (though a bit heavier which could make him more durable).  No one was shocked to see Ward stay on the bench after he missed most of spring practice due to questions about whether he would qualify academically.

However, it was revealing to see King supplant Felton in the running back hierarchy.  While Felton did receive more carries (6) and gained more yards (30), he did not play until garbage time.  Meanwhile, King looks to have earned a spot in the running back rotation.

But while the workload division among the backs was eye-opening, what was more surprising was how heavily Kingsbury leaned on the ground game.

On the afternoon, Kingsbury called 38 run plays versus 37 pass plays.  (The official stats show Texas Tech ran the ball 40 times but two sacks of QB Nick Shimonek are recorded as runs.)  That is a run percentage of 50.6% on the afternoon, higher than the run percentage in all but two of Tech’s games last year.

Additionally, the three touchdowns Tech received from the running backs is more than it got from the position group in any game in 2016.  Last season, Texas Tech was led in rushing touchdowns by quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ 12.  No other player on the team ran for more than three.

With a young offensive line and a first-time starter at quarterback, Kingsbury would be wise to rely more heavily on his running backs this year.  It is easier for offensive linemen to run block because that skill asks them to fire forward rather than retreat and run blocking schemes are more simple in nature than pass blocking schemes.

Additionally, a strong running game makes the game easier for Shimonek.  Forcing the defense to defend the run with seven or even eight defenders will give Shimonek and his receivers one-on-one match-ups to exploit.  It will also help slow the game down as the fifth-year senior QB gets him feet wet at the helm of the offense.

Next: Week 1 Game Balls

Of course, one game does not make a trend and it is possible that Kingsbury could chose to throw the ball 60 times against Arizona State.  However, the season opener showed that the Texas Tech running backs are more equipped to handle an increased work load in 2017 and that is a luxury Kingsbury should exploit.