Rutgers practice report: Running back room faces challenge of replacing leading rusher Isiah Pacheco

Rutgers has some big shoes to fill in its backfield.

It was evident that the Scarlet Knights were losing a key running back when Isiah Pacheco, their leading rusher for each of the past three seasons, entered the NFL Draft. It’s become more apparent now that the Vineland native is the star of the training camp for the Kansas City Chiefs.

How will head coach Greg Schiano and company replace Pacheco’s production? Ideally by committee, but he’s open to any possibilities, he said.

“I want to play multiple guys,” he said during Big Ten Media Days last week. “I don’t want to have one guy unless it plays out that way. If that’s the way it is, we’ll do it.”

The Scarlet Knights have plenty of horses in their staple, from experienced players Aaron Young and Kyle Monangai to young backs like Al-Shadee Salaam and Samuel Brown. Young, the veteran of the room, is limited entering camp following offseason surgery, Schiano said last week in Indianapolis.

“I like the running back room. I think we have depth there,” Schiano said on the first day of training camp Wednesday. “A lot of it is going to be Aaron Young. Where is he with the knee recovery? He’s doing some of the things. He’s not doing everything.”

The early signs from the group have been positive, Monangai said Friday. A strong summer in the strength and conditioning program has guys “stronger, faster, more conditioned,” and the addition of the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Brown — a “big guy” with a “good head on his shoulders ” who “knows how to work” — has helped.

“If we stay together, we’re going to be fine,” Monangai said.

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Pacheco, who Monangai still talks to, set the bar high in his four years in Piscataway. He finished his career seventh in program history in career rushing yards (2,442) and sixth in rushing attempts (563). But he was unable to break one of the longest rushing-related droughts in college football.

The Scarlet Knights have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2012, when Juwan Jamison finished with 1,075 yards. They are one of six current 130 FBS programs that haven’t had a player rush for 1,000 yards or more in a season during that span, an NJ Advance Media statistical analysis showed, joining Purdue, FIU, Washington State, Akron and Miami of Ohio .

Schiano said last season that the benchmark might not be “the gold standard.” That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to see it happen in Piscataway.

“What I’d like to do is play multiple backs and have more than one back have 1,000 yards,” Schiano said during Big Ten Media Days. “When we were running the ball well, Ray (Rice) had over 2,000 yards, so why can’t two backs have 1,000 yards each? There’s no limit. That’s what I’d like to do.”

His players would, too, but they are not making it their main objective.

“It would definitely be a result of us playing well,” Monangai said. “We want to perform well in the run game. If we do what we have to do, if we do our job, then that will come. That will be a product of it. It’s not a main focus but that’s something we’re going to strive to get and perform well in the run game.”

It would be a big leap for any of the current Scarlet Knights given their previous production. Monangai had 235 yards on 62 carries as a freshman last season, an average of 3.8 yards per rush. Young’s career best also came last season, when he ran for 205 yards on 56 rushes, an average of 3.7 yards per carry.

History is not on their side either: Jamison was just the seventh player in program history to have over 1,000 yards rushing in a season and just the third since 1976; Rice (2005-07) and Terrell Willis (1993-94) are the other two.

Perhaps the most realistic goal is matching Pacheco, who ran for 647 yards on 167 carries (3.9 YPC) last fall.

But with just three training camp practices down, those goals are far from their minds. For now, they’re focused on “improvement,” Monangai said.

“It’s going to be a tough year this year,” he said. “We have a lot of big games but we’re ready for it. That’s what we practiced for. We don’t want an easy situation. We want those big moments. We’re going to keep working.”

Here is the rest of the practice report following Rutgers’ third training-camp session:

Location: Practice fields F-2 and F-3

Pads: Shells

Weather: 79 degrees (felt like 82 degrees), cloudy/overcast

Opening song: Friday (Dopamine Re-Edit) by Riton x Nightcrawlers – Friday ft. Mufasa & Hypeman

First word: “It’s been great. We’re improving as a team, as an offense, and I’m really proud of our guys for making strides in just three days.” – Monangai on how training camp is coming along.

Two more observations:

– An improved run game hinges on an improved offensive line, another unit Schiano says he wants to “play a lot of people.” The Scarlet Knights restocked the unit in the offseason, adding four transfers out of the portal who could contribute alongside returning contributors like Ireland Brown, Hollin Pierce and Gus Zilinskas.

Schiano said it was too early in camp to tell where the offensive line is given that the full pads have yet to come on, but he said the Scarlet Knights are “starting to figure it out.”

Sacred Heart transfer JD DiRenzo, one of the veterans of the room, indicated that the competition in the unit is going well.

“We’re a family. It’s a healthy competition,” DiRenzo said. “We’re pushing each other every single day. There’s no bad blood or anything. We all get along really well on and off the field and we’re just pushing each other every day to get better and better and I think that’s why we’ve made such strides.”

For his part, the Hammonton native said he feels more comfortable after getting through spring camp and having a few months to adapt to his new home.

“I remember the first day of spring ball, I was running the wrong play 50 percent of the time. Now I’m teaching the younger guys the plays,” he said. “I’ve really gotten accustomed to the playbook and I know it really well now.”

– The Drew Singleton Saga continues to drag on. The NCAA has yet to answer his appeal, so he remains serving as a volunteer in practice as he awaits the resolution to his situation.

“I’m hoping the best for Drew,” linebacker Tyreem Powell said. “We’re in his corner as a team and defense, but we’re hoping for the best from him.”

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