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Jaelin Benefield

Eastern Illinois freshman running back Jaelin Hayes-Benefield (4) jogs off the O'Brien Field turf after a play in an August 2019 practice. EIU defensive coordinator Chris Bowers said of Benefield's speed: "It's that obvious. My 5-year-old son could tell you he's fast."

As Eastern Illinois football toils through fall camp under first-year coach Adam Cushing, the JG-TC is examining each position group. Next in the series: running backs.

Returning players: Darshon McCullough (Sr.), Robert Columbus (R-Sr.), Courtney Rowell (R-Soph.)

Departed players: Isaiah Johnson (Sr.), Jamal Scott (Jr.), Ivan Webb (Fr.), Nolan Dean (R-Soph.)

Incoming players: Chris Walker (Grad), Jaelin Hayes-Benefield (Fr.), David Kirkpatrick (Fr.), Eric Johnson (Fr., walk-on)

Biggest offseason developments: Isaiah Johnson played in a postseason all-star game with the hope of getting drafted, but he was not selected in April. Scott practiced this spring, but left the team afterward.

In short

EIU’s running back room saw as much transition as any other position. The top two rushers from 2018, Johnson and Scott, are gone. Two scholarship freshmen and a graduate transfer are new. Two of the three holdovers are returning from spending a season on defense. The three old faces totaled 27 carries in 2018 and have 161 combined career rushes.

What to like

There’s a sense of hunger from the group as a whole. No one has proven anything or earned a built-in advantage from prior seasons at EIU – that wouldn’t particularly matter under a new staff taking over a three-win team anyway – and there’s an awareness of it among the six running backs.

Even Walker, a former all-conference player at Cornell who offensive coordinator John Kuceyeski coached in 2016, isn’t assured of a spot despite his pre-existing relationship with a key decision-maker.

“Every day is a chance to show what you have,” running backs coach Omar Young said. “It’s a job interview.”

There’s a strong balance of skill sets in the group. At Cornell, Walker earned as much attention and praise for his receiving ability as his rushing skills. He averaged 9.7 yards per catch from 2016-17, a strong number for anyone who sees most of his receptions come on screens and short passes. If nothing else, that should help him stake claim to work on passing downs.

Walker is the biggest back of the bunch too, at a sturdy 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds with obvious definition. Between his size and past passing game contributions, he offers EIU’s offense multiple dimensions.

“It’s the versatility that he brings and physicality that he runs with,” Young said. “You see those things on tape, it stands out to you. You think, ‘this big guy can do all this?’”

Benefield, meanwhile, has speed that popped out to those not even in charge of recruiting running backs when EIU’s staff arrived in January and began pouring over recruits’ film.

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“In our first day-and-a-half here, we watched so many guys,” defensive coordinator Chris Bowers said on National Signing Day. “I’ll be the first to admit that if they weren’t a defensive player and they weren’t someone I had to call from an area I recruited, I couldn’t keep them straight. Jaelin later came up and I asked which one he was, just trying to jog my memory. (Former running backs coach) Jayden (Everett) goes, ‘he’s the one that in the first two plays you said out loud to the staff room that whoa, he’s fast.’ It’s that apparent. My 5-year-old son could tell you he’s fast.”

The three returners are more of an unknown, having spent their careers in backup duty, or in McCullough’s and Rowell’s cases, in the secondary. They’re all truly in the mix for noteworthy roles or the primary position in EIU’s backfield for the first time in their careers.

“We’re going to need at least three running backs,” Kuceyeski said.

Questions

EIU’s attention to revamping the position should breed a strong competition. What remains to be seen, though, is if anyone is truly a game-changer who becomes an opposing defense’s focal point in game preparation.

Does EIU have anyone like that on the roster? Or is the running back room full of a bunch of solid contributors who should form an effective committee but fall short of turning into a top-tier rushing attack? EIU may not need or expect an elite running game, but having one would obviously change the ceiling of where this first season under Cushing can go. A 250-plus touch, 1,200-scrimmage-yard type is every coach's dream, but even someone like Johnson (99 carries, 758 yards, 30 catches) would be a big boost.

It’s a question of upside akin to the one facing the quarterback competition. Young, Kuceyeski and Cushing aren’t basing their judgments solely on who they think could post the best testing numbers.

“The thing you promote with the guys is to instill everything that we want to be on offense,” Young said. “We want to be tough, we want to be physical and we want to be disciplined. That’s what I’m grading them on.”

Still, having a running back who boasts evident athleticism, speed or change-of-direction ability is ideal. This is where a freshman like Benefield has a chance to play meaningful snaps. His speed naturally offers some upside, and Young likes his understanding of how to run behind his pads at this stage in his career. He has already seen extended work in camp.

Walker earned all-Ivy League honors by leading the conference in yards per carry (5.42) and bringing big-play ability as a pass-catcher, even though he only had 121 carries. If he can come close to finding that explosiveness, it would be hard to imagine him not helping EIU and elevating its offense.

McCullough, Rowell and Columbus have only one season between them where they averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry. But EIU’s staff isn’t putting much weight on that. It’ll come down to what they show in camp, and so far, McCullough’s performance has stood out.

Key stat

6.95 – the combined yards per carry from Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Scott in 2018. Behind them, no running back had more than 19 carries.

Bold prediction

No one rushes for more than 850 yards. EIU should find three capable backs from this group, but none will quite emerge as a workhorse who surpasses 200 touches. As EIU’s 2018 tandem showed, though, it’s possible to have an effective rushing offense with two guys carrying the load.

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Contact Patrick Engel at (217) 238-6856. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickEngel_

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Sports writer

I cover Eastern Illinois football and basketball, as well as Mattoon/Charleston prep sports, for the JG-TC

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