If I'm betting a trifecta box on UVA's running back position this fall, here's how I'd structure the bet... (Apologies in advance for all of the mixed sports metaphors.)
For one glorious quarter in Hattiesburg, Dominique Wallace looked like the explosive, dynamic workhorse back we needed to replace Cedric Peerman.
WIN: Dominique Wallace, redshirt freshman
As a true freshman, Wallace emerged from the rat race on the depth chart to be named the starting RB for the third game of the season in 2009 -- on the road at Southern Miss. In the first quarter of the game, he rumbled for 45 yards on 11 carries, and looked to be every bit the star running back we needed to serve as the engine of the offense... and then the hit pictured above popped his Lisfranc joint and Wallace was lost for the season. He's a big, bulldozing power back with enough speed to hit the edge and turn a short gain into a long one, but his skill set was a bad fit in the spread, which is why he started 2009 so far down the depth chart. It was clear to all observers that despite the presence of veteran runners Mikell Simpson, Torrey Mack, and Rashawn Jackson, Dominique Wallace was the best pure running back on the team. He played well in his limited action last season, and was hurt early enough in the season that the NCAA granted him a rare medical hardship redshirt. So Wallace returns for a second shot at his freshman season.
With Mike London and Bill Lazor installing a throwback power-based I-form offense this season, Wallace is the proverbial "perfect fit" as the bellcow ballcarrier. I expect him to quickly seize control of the starting position in training camp next month, and never let it go. I expect him to shine this season as the between-the-tackles grinder. I expect him to become the focal point of the Virginia offense. He honestly has the potential to be that good. My one question mark is a pretty big one -- Can he stay healthy? One fluke Lisfranc injury shouldn't suggest that he's fragile or injury-prone, but the fact is that in his only extended taste of college football action, he was lost for the season with an injury. If he stays healthy, though... look out.
PLACE: Perry Jones, sophomore
If Dominique Wallace is the overpowering fastball, Perry Jones is the devastating changeup / curveball / splitter. He came to Virginia as a small (5-8, 185) scatback who was instantly slotted at defensive back by the departed coaching staff. But Jones eventually battled his way into the [admittedly underwhelming] mix at tailback during his redshirt freshman season. He carried that momentum into the spring, where he beat out Torrey Mack, Keith Payne, and Raynard Horne to earn the first-team listing on the post-spring depth chart (with Wallace still out, rehabbing his injury). I've seen Perry Jones in action a few times now, and I can tell you that he is QUICK, he's dangerous in the passing game as an outlet option or dump-off target in the flat, and he's electric slipping through traffic and into the open field. Best of all, he runs with a lot of toughness depsite his tiny frame. I love this guy, I absolutely love him. And I think he'll do extremely well with 8-10 carries per game behind Wallace, along with a few receptions scattered here and there working as the 3rd down back or from the slot. In other words, I think he's a great complement to Dominique Wallace. (The term "thunder & lightning backfield" is extremely cheesy, so I won't touch that. How about steak & sizzle? Peanut butter & jelly? Fox & hound? Brad Pitt & Angeline Jolie? Am I reaching? David & Goliath? T&A? Too far?) That's not to say that Jones has gamebreaking speed, because he doesn't. He's quick in his cuts, but he's not a burner. He has his limitations. But as the wicked knuckleball to Wallace's high stinking cheddar, Perry Jones is money.
SHOW: Torrey Mack, sophomore
Mack was a highly-rated four-star recruit coming out of high school, but he has struggled to this point in his UVA career. He's not big or strong enough to make hay grinding between the tackles, he's not fast or explosive enough to get it done around the edge, his cuts aren't nasty enough to sift through traffic as a cutback runner. He's just sort of stuck in between those three archetypes, and the result is a fairly milquetoast running back who can't find any real success or scratch out any meaningful role at the collegiate level. He's still young, so there's still plenty of time for him to develop... but after last season's struggles (73 yards on 23 carries, 3.2 ypc) I'm only on the fence about whether or not the upside is really there. One thing Mack can do, and can do well, is catch passes. But Jones has the receiving back role on lockdown, while also bringing a lot more to the table as a cutback runner. So I guess we're stuck in wait-and-see mode with Torrey Mack, keeping the hopes high but the expectations low.
- Keith Payne, senior -- He might not be invited back to the team this fall, but if he is, he's a decent power back who could spell Dominque Wallace.
- Raynard Horne, senior -- Do you remember Marquis Weeks? A somewhat talented workhorse-type who just toils in obscurity, buried forever on the depth chart by more exciting/dynamic options. I have a sneaking suspicion that if Horne were ever called upon to carry the load, he would succeed, just like Weeks did once upon a time.
- Kevin Parks, true freshman -- Here is our dazzling cutback guy; our potential superstar of the future. I hope he redshirts this season, so he can pack some weight and strength onto his frame, then we can unleash this ultimate weapon upon the world in 2011.
- Khalek Shepherd, true freshman -- He's smurfy (5-6, 165), and likely bound for the wide receiver position as a slot specialist after his redshirt year... but if he sticks at running back, he's got the most pure speed and wiggle of anyone else on the roster at the position. Dare we think Dexter McCluster? Naaah, that's a reach. Call Shepherd the "Poor Man's McCluster."
ANTE POST: If Dominique Wallace stays relatively healthy for the duration of his UVA career, he will challenge the Virginia career rushing record of 3,998 yards set by Thomas Jones. Wallace has the chance to be a rare four-year starter at the position, and he has the talent to deliver those sorts of numbers. Having a coaching staff that is openly committed to running the football and developing the power ground game as the one true identity of the offense can't hurt, either.