Ranking the ACC’s ground games

So far we’ve previewed the ACC’s QBs, offensive lines, linebackers, and defensive backs.

Next up: The ground games. (And again, we’ll refer often to “running backs” here, but the discussion is larger than that… this is more about how we expect each team to perform running the ball in 2019.)

Another caveat here: It’s tough to separate out the work a running back does from the work his O-line does. We’re going to try, but none of these stats are a panacea. They tell us something, but certainly not everything.

As you’ll see with a team like Florida State, the more OL independent a stat is, the better their backs look. But the OL was so bad, that it was hard to truly gauge the performance of their RBs. On the other hand, you can look at a team like NC State, that really struggled in the backfield, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario whereby the line was pretty good (they were excellent pass blockers) and the runners did little to help.

Anyway, let’s start with the numbers from last year. You can click on the chart to bring it up in Google Sheets.

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 12.44.12 AM

There’s a lot to digest here, but let’s start with Clemson because, like virtually every position we’ve looked at, the Tigers weren’t just No. 1 — they were No. 1 by a country mile.

A lot of the credit here belongs to Travis Etienne, who is as good a big-play back as there is in the country. Some credit goes to Trevor Lawrence, who forced defenses to respect the passing game (less than 4% of first down runs were against a stacked box) and was smart about getting the offense into the right play call. And, of course, a good bit of credit goes to the line, which was far more physical in 2018 than any of the previous playoff teams Dabo Swinney has put out there.

None of this should come as a big surprise, though I’ll point out one number that really seemed worth noting: Clemson actually allowed a lower sack rate on blitz plays than non-blitz plays. Sure, that’s great recognition from the QB, but for a group of backs that’s heard a ton from Tony Elliott over the years about pass protection, they seemed to do a really good job in 2018.

*More than a few folks might be surprised to see North Carolina at No. 2 on the list, but the Heels’ backfield was actually quite good last season. The O-line did a nice job of run blocking, and Michael Carter & Co. were excellent at finding yardage downfield. The line will be a bigger question mark heading into 2019, but the running back stable remains exceptional, and with marginally improved QB play, this should remain one of the ACC’s better units.

*Pitt and Georgia Tech should come as no surprise. What stands out is that the Panthers performed nearly as well as Clemson when facing 7 or fewer defenders in the box, but that was far less common for Pitt than it was for Dabo’s crew. Pitt faced an extra defender in the box nearly four times as often as Clemson on first-down runs last season. And as we noted in the QB post, that didn’t translate well to success on play-action either. Now, Pitt says goodbye to both its 1,000-yard rushers, and I think there are real questions about whether that kind of performance is repeatable if the passing game doesn’t pick up some slack.

*There’s little doubt Georgia Tech has a nice stable of backs. If there’s one thing Paul Johnson managed to recruit, it was running backs. But what should we make of this group in a different system behind an O-line with an entirely different blocking style? I certainly wouldn’t expect 7 yards a carry on first down again, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Tech remains in the top half of the league here.

*The lack of second-level yardage for backs at both Miami and Duke seem strange. Both teams have guys who should thrive on speed and elusiveness, but that just wasn’t routinely the case. At Duke, in particular, their backs offered virtually nothing downfield, finishing last in the league in missed tackle rate, second-to-last in second-level rushing and 11th in yards after contact. If one’s going to improve, my money’s on Miami. A better passing game — better, right? — will help, and DeeJay Dallas and Lorenzo Lingard should make for a dynamic duo.

*Can we take a second here to stand in awe of Louisville‘s 21.11% missed tackle rate? Finally, a stat Louisville led the ACC in that wasn’t something bad. A lot can be credited to mobile QBs, but Louisville’s ground game was actually pretty good overall, and the Cards were exceptional at creating yardage downfield when the opportunity presented itself. This is one reason I think Louisville needs to find a way to get Malik Cunningham on the field regularly — even if Puma Pass remains the starting QB.

*Oh, Florida State. Poor Cam Akers. Look at the first three categories there — all which include a pretty hefty dose of blocking in the mix. FSU is awful across the board. But look at things like second-level yardage and yards after contact, and the backs suddenly don’t look so bad. What’s most telling is that FSU saw a stacked box virtually never — because frankly, why bother respecting the ground game when the Noles could barely muster 4 yards a clip when defenses didn’t stack the box?

*With a runner like A.J. Dillon, it’s strange to see Boston College so far down the list… but then look over at how often Dillon & Co. were running into 8 defenders in the box. That’s an astonishing number — nearly double the next highest rate in the ACC. All things considered, BC wasn’t bad when running into the teeth of the defense, particularly considering that Dillon was banged up a lot last season, and as we noted in our QB roundup, that actually translated to some really strong numbers for Anthony Brown throwing vertically. A healthy Dillon this season should make BC’s offense extremely dangerous.

*There was a lot to like about Virginia‘s season, but the big missing link is the big-play thereat. The Hoos simply didn’t have it in the passing or running game, but here we see just how dramatic it was. Virginia was dead last in the league in second-level yardage and yards after contact. UVA backs had just 26 runs of 10 yards or more last season — worst in the ACC and 124 nationally. If the Cavaliers are going to take the next step and win the Coastal this season, that has to change. I’m far from sold that PK Kier is the guy to do it, so Virginia should be hoping one of the young guys blossoms in fall camp.

*Syracuse’s overall performance was pretty meh, with the backs not doing much to gain yards that weren’t handed to them by the line. Still, the arrival of Abdul Adams will help, and I’ve been told by a number of folks that Moe Neal was one of the most improved runners in the league last year.

*Similar questions for NC State, which was just dismal running the ball way too often last season. Against Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Texas A&M — all losses — NC State’s backs managed just 3.77 yards per carry with 3 TDs and 29 runs stopped for a loss or no gain. A healthy Ricky Person should add some power running against better defensive fronts, and three freshmen could figure into the mix, too, with Zonovan Knight making for an intriguing big-play threat.

*Virginia Tech is another big mystery. The Hokies haven’t had the same player lead the team in rushing in consecutive years since Brandon Ore in 2006 & 2007 (and that streak is guaranteed to continue in 2019). VT hasn’t had three straight games with 200 rushing yards since 2011. They haven’t had a back with 1,000 yards and 10 TDs since 2009 (Duke is the only ACC team with a longer stretch).

Of course, there’s some reason for optimism for the Hokies. Deshaun McClease returns after a dalliance with the transfer portal. And last year’s non-QB average of 5.11 yards-per-rush on first down — while good for just 6th in the ACC — was the Hokies’ best mark since at least 2003 (I couldn’t go back any further without a lot of effort).

On the other hand, McClease saw his role diminish as last year went on, and Justin Fuente has never seemed to feel overly comfortable with his running backs. And as we noted in our QB piece, Ryan Willis didn’t exactly stretch the field to open up the run last year.

So what’s the answer? Like with almost everything VT this year, I think there’s upside. But there’s too much history here for a ton of optimism.

My rankings:

1. Clemson
2. UNC
3. Boston College
4. Miami
5. Wake Forest
6. Syracuse
7. Pitt (a wait-and-see approach is probably warranted here)
8. Georgia Tech
9. Virginia Tech
10. Louisville (RBs are a huge question, but QBs offer an alternative)
11. NC State (lots of room to move up… but need to see it to believe it)
12. Florida State (love their backs, if only that’s all that mattered)
13. Duke
14. Virginia

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