Louisville has been hit extremely hard this season with injuries at the running back position, a place where the team had struggled to find a long term solution and couldn’t afford to lose anyone.
First it was Dae Williams, a redshirt freshman, who went down in April with a torn ACL after being the talk of spring practice (we’ll talk more about Dae momentarily.
Then it was Jeremy Smith, who was lost for the season after injuring his foot in practice just a few days after the season opener against Purdue.
Next it was Colin Wilson, a true freshman, who missed the first three games of the season after hurting his hand in fall camp, only to return and look like he could be a game changer for Louisville against Kent State and Murray State before going down with a nasty looking season ending knee injury.
That left Louisville with just Malik WIlliams and Reggie Bonnafon at the position. Then late in the game against NC State Malik Williams went down late in the fourth quarter with a gruesome looking arm injury, and it was announced yesterday in Bobby Petrino’s weekly press conference that Malik would be out “for a while.”
What does that mean for the Louisville running game? Is there anyone who can actually step up and take over a position that has struggled to contribute in the UofL offense this season?
Here are the options the coaching staff has remaining.
Season Statistics: 31 Carries, 129 Yards, 4.2 AVG, 2 Touchdowns
Four seasons and three positions later, Reggie Bonnafon will be relied upon by the coaching staff like never before with three back’s out for the season. So far this year he’s looked average at best in his new position, but that has more to do with the lack of carries than anything in my opinion. While Malik WIlliams had emerged as the primary back, Bonnafon had shown in small doses that he could potentially be an impact player at RB. He lacks the instinct that you see with most backs who have played the position for longer than a few months and struggles at time to hit the open blocking lanes with explosion. However, Reggie if given the chance can get you some nice big gains on the ground and through the air. I fully expect Bonnafon to be the primary back this weekend at Boston College, a team that is pretty good at stopping the run, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can prove he deserves to be the team’s lead back.
Season Statistics: 12 Carries, 72 Yards, 6.0 AVG, 0 TD
Trey Smith is an intriguing running back option for the coaching staff and a player that a lot of Louisville fans don’t know much about. While spending most of his time at Louisville as a 3rd or 4th string running back as well as a full back, there’s never really been an opportunity to get on the field thus far into his career at Louisville. Playing behind guys like Brandon Radcliff, Jeremy Smith, LJ Scott, Malik WIlliams and Reggie Bonnafon has prevented Smith from ever really getting a shot, but in limited action (typically in blowouts) he’s shown that he can hit open holes and carry the ball with some strength. Smith, the son of former NFL wide receiver Jimmy Smith, has a great combination of size (6’0, 225 pounds) and speed, while also being able to block out of the back field.
An injury like a torn ACL typically requires a 10 to 12 month recovery process, even for some of the NFL’s most athletic players. But for Dae Williams it’s been just six months to get completely healthy. Bobby Petrino announced during his weekly Monday press conference, that the redshirt freshman running back out of Oklahoma, had been fully cleared to play and would likely see his first action as a Louisville Cardinal on Saturday against BC. Short-term and long-term Dae Williams is Louisville’s best bet at running back. A big physical bruising running back like WIlliams can be extremely hard to tackle in the open field, especially when he has the speed of a smaller back. Dae Williams, a lot like Malik WIlliams, has the ability to get you the tough yards that require taking big hits, while also having the ability to bust open a big play at any time. If he’s healthy, expect him to get the majority of carries as the season progresses. I would say by the final weeks of the season he’s the starting back.
Season Statistics (rushing only): 3 Carries, 38 Yards, 12.7 AVG, 0 Touchdowns
Traveon Samuel is a real wild card for the running back position in my opinion. While he is currently listed as the team’s starting slot receiver, he really hasn’t been a big part of the game plan through six games (11 catches 189 receiving yards – 100 yards came the Clemson game). With that being the case why not put him in the back field and see what he can do? I believe he’s able to do more than just get the ball on reverses and trick plays. Everyone, including Bobby Petrino and staff, knows he’s capable of a big play at any given time, and at just 5’7 he’s the type of tailback who can get lost behind a big O-Line like Louisville’s. With Corey Reed emerging as a slot receiver for Lamar Jackson, I think mixing Samuel in at running back makes perfect sense, and would make defenses more likely to watch the run game because of his ability to rip off a big gain in the blink of an eye.
The best case scenario for Bobby Petrino is a fully healthy Dae Williams as the team’s primary running back, mixed with a little Traveon Samuel, a ittle Reggie Bonnafon and a little Trey Smith. For all those who want to see Bonnafon as UofL’s primary back have to understand that, while Reggie hasn’t played the position very long and has room to grow, he’s just not going to be the answer this season because of his lack of instinct and inexperience.. However, I do believe he is the team’s best blocker at running back and has the potential to break large plays and be a decoy for Lamar Jackson when needed. Dae Williams, if healthy, has a mix of size, power and speed, which is exactly what the team needs to keep defenses from only focusing on Lamar Jackson. I think you let Dae be your “workhorse” back but stick to what has worked with Bobby Petrino in years past, and sprinkle in guys with different skill sets like Reggie Bonnafon, Trey Smith and Traveon Samuel.
Jacob Lane joined The Cardinal Connect in August of 2017 after previously writing for CardinalSports.com on the Rivals Network. Jacob covers anything and everything Louisville Cardinals. Follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Lane08