TCU’s running game was its best weapon on offense in 2016, and new co-offensive coordinator Curtis Luper is expecting even bigger things from his running backs this season.
Luper has coached running backs at TCU since 2014. In an exclusive interview with DieHards, he said his position group will be the best in the league in 2017.
“I think we’ve got the best running backs in the Big 12. Period,” Luper said. “I mean, that could be your headline.”
He’s not alone in that opinion. Analyst Phil Steele ranked the Frogs backfield first in the Big 12 in his season preview. TCU will go at least four players deep at tailback in 2017. Every one can be a game changer, and that starts with Kyle Hicks.
Among the Big 12’s returning players this season, Hicks had the most all-purpose yards (1,483) and the most rushing touchdowns (12) in 2016. He also was fourth among that group in rushing yards (1,042), despite TCU’s aversion to running the ball for most of the season.
Hicks was so good last year, fans started a hashtag to campaign for him to get more touches. Luper said he heard those pleas, and he agrees with the fans.
“Absolutely,” he said, laughing. “We had those discussions, and [the discussion among the coaches] was led by myself.”
But Hicks isn’t the Frogs’ only weapon out of the backfield.
Shaun Nixon returns from a knee injury to give TCU another versatile threat. A solid running back, he was listed as a starter at slot receiver on the post-spring depth chart. He was second on the team in catches in 2015, trailing only wide receiver Josh Doctson. Luper confirmed Nixon is one of a few players who will see snaps out the backfield and the slot this season.
Then there are the young backs, Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua. Both players averaged more than 8.0 yards per carry as true freshmen in 2016.
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Olonilua can bulldoze defenders. And now he has decided to work on his pass-catching this offseason after getting some work as a third-down back last season.
“Most of it has been just him,” Luper said of Olonilua working on his receiving skills. “He, too, is pretty self-motivated and wants to be a complete running back.”
Anderson fits TCU’s zone blocking scheme well with his ability to make quick cuts, and he flashed incredible explosiveness late last year. There’s a reason his nickname is “Jet.” Luper said he thinks the sophomore will show more of the same this season after a “phenomenal” spring.
That list doesn’t even include incoming freshman Kenedy Snell. While Snell probably will get most of his touches out of the slot, TCU listed him as a running back on National Signing Day. He already might be one of the fastest players on the team.
With Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine gone to the NFL, the title of best backfield in the Big 12 is up for grabs. Luper said TCU’s tailbacks are talented enough to claim that title. They’ll aim to prove that starting with the season opener against Jackson State.
“Obviously, we’ve got to show it,” Luper said. “We’ll start showing it Sept. 2.”