Gus Edwards could be key to Miami's ground game

Mark Richt inherited three established running backs when he arrived at Miami, including a 1,000-yard rusher (Joseph Yearby) and an ESPN 300 recruit who scored nine touchdowns as a freshman in 2015 (Mark Walton).

But which one is Richt really excited about?

“This Gus Edwards kid,” Richt beamed, “is pretty dang good.”

In 2014 as a sophomore, backing up Duke Johnson, Edwards rushed for 349 yards and six touchdowns. But a foot injury cost him all of last season. He’s healthy now, however, and his ceiling is high, Richt believes.

So would Richt really bounce a 1,000-yard rusher from last season down the depth chart?

It makes some sense. While Miami’s ground game has recently thrived under smaller, quicker rushers -- Yearby and Johnson were each 5-9 and just a tick over 200 pounds -- Richt’s best backs at Georgia in recent years tended to be bruisers. For example:

In other words, Edwards -- 6-2, 230 -- looks the part.

And for Miami, finding a bruiser who can move might be crucial in Richt's first season.

While Johnson was an elite runner in space, the Hurricanes struggled mightily in short-yardage situations during his years as the starter (ranking 99th nationally in short-yardage conversions) and were even worse last year, when Miami converted just 47.7 percent of its tries on third-and-3 or less.

Meanwhile, Yearby and Walton combined to average just 4.2 yards per carry on runs that weren't counted as sacks. Only Wake Forest and Kansas were worse among Power 5 programs.

The trickle-down effect was significant, resulting in more first-down passes, fewer third-down conversions and a 12-percent drop in production on play-action passes.

Of course, that can’t all be blamed on the backs. The offensive line was a weak link, too, with non-QB runs averaging just 2.32 yards per rush before contact, 57th among the Power 5 schools. While Richt is hopeful that can change this year, he admits the margin of error is razor thin.

“We probably have six or seven [O-linemen] that can play and be really competitive,” he said. “If we get one or two hurt, it may be trouble.”

Perhaps Edwards’ return will five Miami a physical presence that makes up for problems on the line. Maybe the line will take a step forward and remain healthy. Perhaps Richt’s new system will help the offense, too. Regardless, Richt feels confident -- if not altogether assured just yet -- that there will be improvement in the rushing attack from a year ago.

“I have high hopes; I’ll say that,” Richt said.