CRAWFORD | U of L running backs look to reclaim role as camp opens
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – University of Louisville running backs coach Kolby Smith, a former starter for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, looks like he could still throw on the pads and report for reps in preseason drills.
This past spring, the Cardinals probably wished he could do just that. Every scholarship running back had some kind of injury in the spring. There were times the running backs’ room looked more like an orthopedist’s waiting room.
But as preseason camp got under way for the Cardinals on Friday, Smith had plenty of healthy company, and he says the running backs are ready for business.
While the Cards have posted record rushing totals the past two seasons, better than half of those yards came from the quarterback spot, where Lamar Jackson and his outsized influence on the Louisville offense ran the show, and the ball.
One result of that: U of L has just one running back on its roster that has ever scored a rushing touchdown in a game.
This season, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino expects the offense to look more conventional, and that means relying on the running back spot much more than in past years. At least that’s what Smith and his running backs are hoping.
“Praying for it, baby,” Smith said.
By virtue of being the healthiest running back in the spring, and by virtue of a ton of hard work, redshirt junior Trey Smith enters preseason camp at the top of the running back depth chart. The son of former NFL All-Pro wideout Jimmy Smith, the 6-foot, 220-pound Smith brings leadership to the position, but he’ll face a lot of competition before the season opener against Alabama.“I feel like I’ve been here 15 years, like Coach P said,” Smith joked after Louisville’s opening practice. “A lot of things have changed. This facility has changed. And I do feel like the old guy now. I know I have to step into a new role. I really do hope it’s my time. I’ve been working my butt off just trying to get on the field.”
Smith has played in 24 games the past two seasons, but his opportunities to run the ball have been limited. He said he has leaned on his dad through the frustrating times, and hopes his work ethic has earned the respect of his teammates. It certainly has earned the respect of his position coach.
“Trey is the guy,” Kolby Smith said. “He did a great job of earning it, and I don’t see him letting it go. Trey brings leadership. He's been there for a long time. He just knows how to play the position. He does a good job really being patient on his runs, just ending up in those little small tracks. He shows great vision. He definitely brings toughness to the room. He's probably one of the best pass blockers on the team, and does a good job of being violent with his hands.”
But Petrino and Smith both are eager to see a healthy group fight it out for the starting spot. Injuries in the spring gave guys like Tobias Little, Harry Trotter, Maurice Burkley and Taveon Graves a chance to get additional reps.
Early practices will show if any of them gained ground on Smith, Dae Williams or Colin Wilson. Petrino said he won’t say a lot to the backs about which of them tops the depth chart. He’ll let them sort it out with their play.
“They're coming in healthy and ready to go,” Petrino said. “I'm excited about that and I'm excited about a young man named Hassan Hall. I think he will be the fastest guy we've had at running back; he really can go. He's got a lot to learn. Like I told Kolby Smith when he was a true freshman here after he gave up a couple sacks in practice, 'You don't protect the quarterback, you don't play.' So he's got to learn the protections. He's big enough and physical enough to be able to get the technique down and be able to make the blocks, but you've got to learn the schemes. That's the number one most important thing as a running back is you can't get the quarterback hit.”
Hall, a 6-foot, 205-pound true freshman from Atlanta, timed a 10.3-second 100 meters in high school.
“He's a smooth runner with a long stride,” Smith said. “He doesn't know how fast he is. We're just working on him honing in on each play and understanding the blocking schemes.”
Williams is the team’s top returning rusher, with 238 yards on 38 carries despite missing the first half of last season after tearing his ACL in spring football. His three TDs are the only scores the running back corps has to its credit. A foot injury kept him out of spring ball this year, but he’s expected to be full speed now.
“I'm expecting great things from Dae,” Smith said. “I'm on him every day. “He was good late in the season. He does a really good job making yards after contact, which we call bull yards. He can catch the ball really well. Especially when we have two backs in the game, he brings that dynamic to the game.”
With Jackson rushing for school-record totals the past two seasons, the running backs room at U of L hasn’t exactly been buzzing. This summer, it is. And Petrino is relying on it to post significant numbers.
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