As we wind up for the kickoff of the 2021 football season, we are will spend this week asking answering our the five biggest questions we think the UCF Knights will have to answer coming into the season. But this year, we’re doing it a bit differently than in the past: Round Table Style.
We continue with Question #3: With all the graduations, departures and now injuries, who will carry the load for the Knights in the backfield?
I’m on the record as being quite bullish on the Knights’ running back stable, even with the departure of Beno Thompson and the injury to R.J. Harvey. I initially thought Gus Malzahn had brought in too many backs, but that turned out to be a pretty wise move.
The guy I’m most interested in is Isaiah Bowser. He’s mature (listed as a senior), experienced (1,300 career rushing yards at Northwestern), and best of all, big (6-1, 225). He’ll fill the power role nicely. Redshirt freshman transfer Mark-Antony Richards (6-1, 205) should fill in right behind him and get plenty of run as well.
As far as the speed guys, well, we’ve got lots of options there. Johnny Richardson and Demarius Good have shown some flashes prior to this season, and let’s not forget Trillion Coles, who has been patiently waiting for his opportunity to show what he’s got.
Now, is this group “proven”, in the highest sense of the word? No. But there’s only one way to get yourself proven, and that’s to play and play well. This unit will shake itself out.
UPDATE: In comes Woody Barrett now. He’s listed as a redshirt senior RB but we have not seen any official confirmation of his eligibility.
Former Auburn & Kent State RS SR QB @WoodyB_1 from West Orange HS has appeared on the UCF roster as #24 a 6’2” 245lb RB.— ⚔️Sidelines - UCF⚔️ (@SSN_UCF) August 27, 2021
He was the FL 8A All-State, FL Dairy Farmers Class 8A POY & Mr. Football finalist. He also participated in the Under Armour All-America Game.
Welcome Woody! https://t.co/U5rU3pwxdY pic.twitter.com/Y8MFdTtQbh
After seeing Bentavious Thompson leave the program and R.J. Harvey get hurt, the running game does have some people concerned. I viewed Thompson as one of the main guys and Harvey still as a project who was going to be a bigger player in the 2022 edition than 2021. Both are no longer available. Considering what is left, I see UCF running a three-running back offense, similar to the 2018 UCF Knights.
Conventional wisdom looks towards Auburn transfer Mark-Anthony Richards to be the main guy. He’s the most experienced with a Gus Malzahn offense, despite only having 20 carries in his career. He’s your all-around back. The speedster is Johnny Richardson. This guy can fly. He has a few carries under his belt as well(11) and looked really good at the spring game. Lastly, you need a bruiser and that comes in the form of Northwestern transfer Isaiah Bowser. The most game experienced of them all, Bowser has 1,300 rushing yards under his belt, including 866 yards in 2018. At 6-1 and 225lbs, he will deliver hard hits in short-yardage and goalline situations. You might see defensive Kalia Davis, a former running back in high school, also line up in the backfield in short-yardage situations.
I’m expecting Mark-Antony Richards to start off getting the bulk of the carries. Richards did not play a whole lot while he was at Auburn, but he did carry the ball 14 times for 57 yards against Alabama last season. He has the most familiarity with Gus Malzahn and therefore, he will likely start the season off as RB1. That doesn’t mean he’ll get the most carries, but considering how decimated the running back position has been this offseason, Richards is likely next in line.
As the season goes on, I think Johnny Richardson will be featured more often. He’s the most capable running back in the corps and I think he has the potential to be the team’s leading rusher.
The answer to this question depends on what kind of backfield Malzahn wants. Are we still going to have a three-man rotation or just one workhorse back, perhaps a duo? I think it very well may be the latter option.
Senior Isaiah Bowser should likely be a short-yardage plays for the most part. Meanwhile, sophomore Johnny Richardson proved his explosiveness last season, running for an average of 5.9 yards per rush. Therefore, I can envision him in an Adrian Killins-type role that utilizes him in early-down or long yardage situations. Unless sophomore Mark-Anthony Richards truly impressed Malzahn in camp, I don’t expect him to get as many carries as Bowser and Richardson, but if there is ANY running back that could get more carries this season than I think, it’s Richards.
Who will get the ball is a great question. With the losses of what was assumed to be RB #1, Bentavious Thompson, and then our 2nd RB #1, RJ Harvey, the season most likely will start off with Isaiah Bowser standing next to Dillon Gabriel in the backfield. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since Coach Gus seems to prefer bigger backs than the scat-back style players preferred by the prior staff (more on this later). But when we line up in a two-back set, who will be the #2 guy? It could be Mark-Anthony Roberts, but coming off a knee injury, Malzahn may not want to rush him back into duty too quickly. The other option would be Johnny Richardson, who could compliment Bowser’s power with a smaller, shiftier option.
Regardless of who starts, I will confidently claim that no more shall UCF fans have to watch their head coach call the same running plays in short yardage situations: an undersized back running between the tackles, always coming up a yard or two short. And for that, we should all thank Jeremy Pruitt.