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Consulting the Chart: 2019 Running Backs Review

Looking back at the Husky backfield this past season using advanced statistics

Washington v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

We are all the way up to part 3 in my position by position review of the 2019 Washington Huskies football team using UWDP patented game charting information. We’ve previously looked at the wide receivers and tight ends and now get to the running backs.

2019 UW Running Backs Basic Statistics

Player Snaps Carries Yards TDs 1st Downs (Rush + Rec) Yards per Carry
Player Snaps Carries Yards TDs 1st Downs (Rush + Rec) Yards per Carry
Salvon Ahmed 511 185 1020 11 52 5.4
Richard Newton 209 116 498 10 38 4.3
Sean McGrew 129 54 342 1 17 6.3
Kamari Pleasant 75 16 35 0 2 2.2
Malik Braxton 8 2 43 0 2 21.5
Cameron Davis 6 2 6 0 0 3.0

The advanced stats for receivers were fairly self explanatory but I’ll give a brief description for some of the running ones. Opportunity rate represents the percentage of carries in which a back gained at least 5 yards. These are generally considered the job of the offensive line. While traits such as vision and picking the right hole are a factor in opportunity rate, it is generally an indicator of the quality of run blocking a back receives.

Highlight yards represent the yards that are the responsibility of the running back. They get half credit for yards 6-10 and full credit for all yards after that. A 20 yard run then is worth 12.5 highlight yards. That is divided by the number of total 5+ yard runs to create highlight yards per opportunity. The higher the number the more explosive a back is once they get past the blocking of the offensive line.

2019 UW Running Backs Advanced Statistics

Player Avg Yards Before 1st Contact Avg Yards After 1st Contact Forced Missed Tackle % % of Carries with + Yards Opportunity Rate Highlight Yards per Opportunity % Carries Against 8+ Man Box Success Rate on Carries
Player Avg Yards Before 1st Contact Avg Yards After 1st Contact Forced Missed Tackle % % of Carries with + Yards Opportunity Rate Highlight Yards per Opportunity % Carries Against 8+ Man Box Success Rate on Carries
Salvon Ahmed 3.22 2.22 13.51% 83.24% 46.11% 4.13 29.19% 54.10%
Richard Newton 2.67 1.67 12.93% 86.21% 41.12% 1.55 28.45% 53.45%
Sean McGrew 4.80 1.50 11.11% 90.74% 46.30% 1.66 9.26% 51.85%
Kamari Pleasant 0.81 1.38 6.25% 68.75% 26.67% 1.13 31.25% 18.75%
Check out Max’s full breakdown of the 2019 RB advanced statistics

Salvon Ahmed

Ahmed has been one of if not the fastest player on the team during his first two seasons at UW as the backup to Myles Gaskin. Given his performance in those two seasons questions remained for many about whether Ahmed could handle being the featured back in the Husky offense. And while some weren’t satisfied with the results in 2019 Ahmed performed close to (my) expectations.

Ahmed’s yards per carry total dropped by about a half yard and almost all of that total came out of his yards before carry as he more regularly got the ball in traditional running situations. Ahmed has the reputation as someone who crumples under the touch of a single defender but for the second consecutive year he was the team leader in yards after contact. That’s can be true when a defender is able to completely square up on him but Ahmed’s speed often results in defenders getting slightly less of him than they thought. Ahmed may not be able to break tackles very often but he falls forward for an extra yard or two more than you’d think.

When Ahmed was given plenty of green grass he made the most of it. His 4.13 highlight yards per opportunity was the best on the team by a huge margin and is the best encapsulation of his explosiveness. The flip side of that coin is that Ahmed was tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on about 1 of every 6 carries which was a lower number than either Newton or McGrew but not by much. And while Ahmed often outran people on the edge he rarely actually made them miss. The 13.5% forced missed tackle mark was lower than either Ahmed or Gaskin last year despite it being the best on the team in 2019.

It was also underwhelming that Ahmed was never able to get very heavily involved in the passing game. He ended the season with 17 catches on 23 targets for just 84 yards while also dropping a couple of balls. Only about 1/3rd of his targets came beyond the line of scrimmage and none by more than 6 yards. The wheel route that often had success with Myles Gaskin was completely absent from the arsenal this season either because the coaching staff had concerns about his route running or his hands.

The 89-yard gain against USC was the only truly spectacular highlight run of the season for Ahmed but he was still a well above average back. Ahmed missed the BYU game due to injury and was banged up for the bowl game against Boise State but he received at least 35 snaps in every game of conference play and pretty consistently received 15-20 carries outside of a few games. There is enough talent in the backfield that the Huskies should be okay with Ahmed’s early departure for the NFL but it would still be nice to have him on the roster even if he has a couple of flaws.

Richard Newton

Coming into the season it looked like Newton would at best have the chance to compete for short yardage/goal line work with Kamari Pleasant after redshirting last season and dealing with injuries. Instead he went out and scored a 23-yard touchdown out of the wildcat on his first carry and re-asserted a physicality from the running back position that hasn’t been seen on Montlake for several years.

Unfortunately that TD against Eastern Washington was his longest of the season and the lack of explosion is a legitimate concern for Newton’s game. Part of the explanation is that Newton saw a lot of time running the ball when the team didn’t need a huge gain to keep the chains moving. Newton had more carries with 3 yards or fewer to go for a 1st down than Salvon Ahmed despite receiving about 40% fewer carries. His success rate was almost identical to Ahmed’s even with the fairly dramatic difference in situational usage which backs up the argument that Newton was hurt by his situation.

Even if Newton got the ball on 3rd and 3 at midfield you’d like to see some of those 4 yard runs go for 7 or 8 a little more often. That will need to change in 2020 if Newton hopes to become the primary back for Washington. It’s impossible to argue with the results in short yardage though. Newton picked up the 1st down on 87% of his carries with 3 yards or fewer to go compared with 77% for Ahmed.

Newton showed versatility by running the wildcat but also caught a TD pass against BYU and threw one as well in the Vegas Bowl which made him the only Husky this season with a rushing, receiving, and passing TD. Newton only saw 4 targets in the passing game but 3 of them were the only 3 passes to a Husky running back this season that traveled at least 7 yards in the air.

Pass protection and durability are the final two elements of Newton’s game that need to be improved upon for him to take a leap. Newton allowed 2 pressures including a 3rd down sack against Colorado while in pass protection this year. He also has now suffered an injury in 3 consecutive seasons. Newton had a hairline fracture in his foot his senior year which may have lowered his recruiting profile to UW’s benefit, had shoulder surgery in his freshman year, and then injured his foot against Stanford which saw him miss 3 games. In the final regular season games after his return Newton averaged just 2.7 yards per carry before rebounding up to 4.6 in the bowl game. The injury history will likely make the coaching staff hesitant about increasing his workload to dramatically more than the 20-30 snaps and 10-15 carries he saw in conference play this season.

Sean McGrew

There weren’t many players that had a more disappointing final half of the season than Sean McGrew. He looked like a star at times when running for over 100 yards on fewer than 20 carries against both BYU and Arizona. But he suffered a leg injury following the Arizona game and only played 15 total snaps in the final 6 games of the season while sitting out 4 of them. Despite the reduced playing time McGrew also led the team with 9 kick returns at a team best clip of 25.8 yards per return.

By most statistics it’s fairly straightforward to argue that McGrew was the Huskies’ best running back when healthy. He led the team in yards per carry by almost a full yard and gained positive yards on 90%+ of his carries this season. However, if you do a little more digging it’s clear that McGrew was helped by his situational usage.

Likely the most damning stat is that McGrew only faced an 8+ man box on 10% of his carries. He averaged a full 1.5 yards more before contact on average than Salvon Ahmed and 2 yards more than Richard Newton. There’s certainly an argument to be made that this is partly because McGrew is a talented runner capable of letting holes develop before scooting through them. And I think that is mostly true. But it’s clear that McGrew both saw his best performances come against poor defenses and almost never got the ball on obvious running downs. If you flipflop his usage with Richard Newton’s their respective stat lines would likely look vastly different.

The trio of Ahmed, Newton, and McGrew all had very similar opportunity rates as well as similar success rates. Each has their own running style and each has specific pros and cons but I don’t think there’s all that big of a gap between the three. It wouldn’t surprise me to see McGrew finally break through as a senior and finish with 100 carries for the first time in his career. But it also wouldn’t shock me if Cameron Davis ends up as a more well rounded back and McGrew ends up relegated as the 3rd wheel and wondering what kind of numbers he could have put up if given the chance.

Kamari Pleasant

It was somewhat perplexing to see what happened to Kamari Pleasant this season. In 2018 as the 4th string/short yardage running back he averaged 5.1 yards per carry and showed flashes at times. Unfortunately this season he was completely ineffective and was put in a position he wasn’t ready for which contributed to a loss in the Oregon game.

Pleasant averaged about 5 snaps per game when the entire running back contingent was healthy and most often saw time as the best pass blocking back on the roster. With injuries to Richard Newton and Sean McGrew, his most extensive action was in the Oregon and Utah games. Against Oregon he gained 8 yards on 6 carries including 3 runs out of the wildcat on 3rd and short in which he failed to pick up a conversion on any of them. The O-line was not spectacular at creating holes for Pleasant but it definitely didn’t seem like he helped them out by sporting particularly good vision. He saw only one fewer snap the next week against Utah but never got a carry. The Utes caught on to that as Washington averaged 2.2 yards per play after halftime with Pleasant in the game and knew that UW would be passing with him in there.

You can certainly argue that Pleasant was never given particularly great opportunities and was chronically misused by the coaching staff. Unless Pleasant struggled with an undisclosed injury all season it doesn’t seem likely that his production fell off so dramatically because of a decline in talent. Still, even with Salvon Ahmed headed to the NFL it’s unlikely that Pleasant is able to move up the depth chart much if at all as a senior in 2020 with Cam Davis and a pair of true freshmen nipping at his heels.

Malik Braxton

The walk-on Braxton only played 8 snaps this season and unfortunately 3 of them were on the ill-fated Kamari Pleasant wildcat plays versus Oregon where he was forced to take Pleasant’s normal role of lead blocker. When he did get an opportunity to run the ball against Eastern Washington he made the most of it with 43 yards on a pair of carries. Against Pac-12 opponents however the team averaged -0.5 yards per play with Braxton on the field.

Cameron Davis

Next season I need to have a section that shows the result of plays which came back due to penalty. Officially, Davis only gained 6 yards on 2 carries for the season. But he also had a 1st down and a touchdown each called back due to holding penalties that didn’t look like they affected the play. In his limited action Davis looked fast and physical and he’ll clearly be a darkhorse candidate to receive heavy playing time in 2020 much the way that Richard Newton broke out as a redshirt freshman this year. I look forward to seeing what Davis can accomplish with greater opportunities next season.