March 25, 2008

Spring Preview: Running Backs

OUTGOING PLAYER: None

THE STARTER: Aaron Crawford

THE COMPETITORS: Kobey Lewis, Shannon Woods, Baron Batch, Harrison Jeffers, Jarred Flannel

THE OUTLOOK: The Red Raiders do not return a 1,000-yard rusher, but short of that, their running back situation is about as peachy as one could hope for. All contributors at the position from last year's team return, and Tech will add a redshirt sophomore and a true freshman, both of whom may have more pure talent than any of the returnees. What it all adds up to is one of the deepest running back stables in school history.

The back who will start spring ball as the starter is sophomore Aaron Crawford. He started the last several games of the 2007 season, showed considerable promise, and is the man to beat right now.

Crawford is a thick, muscular back, a very hard worker, and he did all the right things from a team standpoint to take the starter's role from Shannon Woods who did all the wrong things from a team standpoint.

Crawford did everything competently, but with the very great exception of Oklahoma game, did nothing spectacularly. Given the incoming talent, Crawford may have to improve, first and foremost, his speed and quickness to retain his starting position.

In addition to Woods, the other returnee is Kobey Lewis. At five-foot-five and 175 pounds, Lewis is not your classic, every-down back. What he is, however, is a tremendous situational, and change-of-pace back. Lewis is as quick as any back in the Big 12, he never drops passes, and is surprisingly effective as a pass protector. In short-so to speak-he is top-flight depth.

Shannon Woods' status with the team is a bit of an enigma. He is the leading rusher from last year's team, and his career accomplishments dwarf those of any other back on the roster. Unfortunately, however, Woods is a constant distraction owing colossal character and attitude problems, which frequently result in suspensions, demotions and various other punishments. If Mike Leach had a three-strikes policy, Woods might have been dismissed from the program before he signed his letter of intent.

Following his suspension from the Gator Bowl, Woods now languishes at the bottom of the depth chart, and it is unclear whether he will be given any real opportunity to resurface on the field of play. Given the presence of several other high-character guys at the running back position, however, Woods faces an uphill climb, to say the very least. And an infusion of talent may render Woods' abilities superfluous.

THE PREDICTON: The true wild cards in Tech's running back picture are Baron Batch and Harrison Jeffers. Batch is a sophomore who sat out all of last season and most of the one before that in an attempt to recover fully from injury and illness. Prior to those problems, Batch had been spectacular in practice, and was working his way onto the field during games.

The best guess is that he is now 100% healthy, and if so, will bring an explosiveness and zeal for contact that no other back on the roster possesses. But Batch will also have to shed several layers of rust, and it is unrealistic to expect him to unseat Aaron Crawford during spring drills.

For that reason, Crawford should go into summer workouts as the number one back, where he will be confronted by yet another dangerous challenger in the person of freshman Harrison Jeffers.

The Lawton, Oklahoma product has the complete package. He has the speed of Baron Batch, the quickness of Kobey Lewis, excellent hands, vision and balance. As is the case with all true freshman, however, the question is how quickly he adapts to the speed of the game at the Big 12 level.

Chances are very good that Aaron Crawford will be the starter on opening day. However, his name will be penciled at the top of the depth chart, not etched there in stone. Mike Leach will almost certainly use the non-conference schedule to evaluate the abilities of Crawford, Batch and Jeffers, and will resolve upon a permanent starter based upon those evaluations. Lewis' role as a valuable backup should remain unchanged, and he will continue to get his snaps. Shannon Woods, I suspect, will not be heard from again.


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