Sophomores Ryquell Armstead and Jager Gardner contributed to the Owls’ offense immediately out of the backfield as freshmen last season.
Armstead carried the ball 51 times for 191 yards to finish as the team’s third-leading rusher in 2015, while Gardner ran for 184 total yards including a 94-yard touchdown run in the team’s 60-40 win against Southern Methodist.
After appearing in 13 games last season, Armstead expects his role to increase in his sophomore campaign.
“It definitely shows you that you’re capable of playing at a college level,” Armstead said. “So, basically to come out here and do you, because your team is actually counting on you now. You’re not a freshman anymore. That’s one thing they really put on you. Your freshman season is done and basically it’s [time to] start over [a] new year.”
Along with redshirt-sophomore running back David Hood, who has been limited in spring practice due to offseason groin surgery, the duo is competing for the backup role behind senior Jahad Thomas.
Thomas set career highs in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns on the way to earning first-team American Athletic Conference honors. Thomas battled injury in the second half of the season, sustaining a rib injury against the University of Notre Dame. He sprained his knee in the Boca Raton Bowl, forcing him to leave the game in the first half with five yards on eight carries.
The Elizabeth, New Jersey native finished last year with 1,262 yards rushing on 276 attempts and 17 rushing touchdowns. He also added 216 yards receiving, the fourth-highest on the team.
“We already feel better about our depth where we feel like we have three or four guys who we can just put in there,” coach Matt Rhule said. “One guy doesn’t have to take too many carries. You don’t get to the middle of the year and you’re trying to break in a new tailback, so we feel good about all those guys.”
Rhule said he also is pleased with his team’s depth at fullback in 2016.
After splitting time between fullback and linebacker last season, redshirt-junior Nick Sharga will line up as a fullback in 2016 while redshirt-sophomore Rob Ritrovato will join Sharga at the position next season.
“We really wanted to teach him how to play fullback,” Rhule said about Sharga’s position change. “We think he has a future at it and last year we kind of just threw him in. This is our first chance to go back, and I think [senior offensive assistance/running backs coach] Chris [Wiesehan] has done a great job with him.”
Ritrovato, who players and coaches call “Nitro,” missed the final 13 games of 2015 after sustaining an injury in the team’s season opener against Penn State.
One of the focuses in spring practice is working on incorporating the running backs into the passing game.
Last season Hood, Thomas and Armstead combined for 33 receptions for 296 yards receiving. Armstead did not record a catch in 2015.
“Catching the ball and protecting the quarterback just makes [me] more versatile,” Thomas said. “You can hand anyone a ball and they can run north and south, but not too many people can catch balls in traffic as a running back. … We all had some drops here and there last year. So we’ve definitely been working on it.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.