Losing its leading rusher from last season, the Massachusetts football team recruited a forsaken player with proven talent to fill its vacancy in the backfield.
The Minutemen acquired senior tailback John Griffin from Northeastern after it cut the football program this past offseason. The acclaimed running back must adjust quickly in his first and only season with UMass in order to supplant the loss of one of the school’s most prolific runners in Tony Nelson.
The Huskies dropped their program in November due to a lack of productivity and funding, leaving Griffin the option of playing anywhere he wanted for his senior season. As upsetting as it was for him to begin playing at a new school during his senior season, he saw it as a blessing in disguise, determined to make the most of the opportunity.
“At first I was mad about the situation, but when God gives you direction, you just have to go with it,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to miss a practice or a lift, because this is the last time I’m going to do this.”
Last season, Griffin became the fifth player in Northeastern history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season, gaining 1,009 yards on 207 carries, including five touchdowns. He earned the Huskies’ Most Valuable Player and Most Improved Player honors for the 2009 season.
The success Griffin had in his junior year recently put him on the College Athletic Association Preseason All-Conference First Team and Phil Steele Second Team honors as elected by league coaches. He now must live up to his reputation as a productive running back if he is to make up for the loss of one of the Minutemen’s best running backs in recent history
Nelson led the Minutemen last season in every rushing category, including yards (741), yards per carry (4.9), yards per game (82.7) and touchdowns (nine). He put a stamp on the school’s record book before graduating, leaving UMass as the sixth all-time leading rusher in yards (2,787) and scores (25).
Aside from his numbers, Nelson was the cornerstone of an offense amidst a transition between a new coach and quarterback. He took pressure off of quarterback Kyle Havens in his first year starting under center, while allowing Morris to implement the type of balanced offense that he preferred.
UMass finished second in the Colonial Athletic Conference in total offense last season with 378 yards per game. The Minutemen split their play-calling nearly in half, running the ball 412 times (54 percent) to 357 pass attempts.
Morris, the former UMass offensive coordinator under Don Brown, will call plays based on what will benefit his team most, and if that means relying on the pass, then he is willing to call more plays for his quarterbacks and receivers. Ideally, the second-year head coach will balance out running plays and throwing plays, as his team was able to effectively execute last season.
Griffin is now expected to help maintain the stability in a rushing attack that gained over 1,600 yards, but he will not have to shoulder the load alone.
Jonathan Hernandez played back-up tailback last season, finishing with 609 yards on 121 carries (4.8 ypg) and eight touchdowns. He performed admirably in place of Nelson when he was injured before the team’s fourth game.
In his first college start on Sept. 26, Hernandez led the UMass offense to a 44-17 victory over Stony Brook, running for 140 yards and scoring three touchdowns. Three weeks later, he was named the Bill Knight Most Valuable Player after scampering for the game-winning 42-yard touchdown in a 23-17 win over New Hampshire.
“It’s great to have someone like [Hernandez] on the same team as me,” Griffin said. “It’s a one-two punch, regardless of who is starting. I think it is very dangerous.”
Hernandez is expected to assume more responsibility in the offense, yet despite all his potential, the Minutemen need another tailback to compliment him in order to mirror their formidable rushing attack from last season.
The addition of Griffin now gives the backfield a similar dynamic to last season’s two-headed rushing attack, allowing Morris a luxury that not every team in UMass’ conference has.
As for their order on the depth chart, Morris has chosen to take each game as it comes and let the players decide on the field.
“These guys are both top-of-the line CAA running backs,” Morris said, “and we’ll use them that way.”
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at email@example.com.