Heading into 2020 there was a big question mark surrounding the running game after an unfortunate and lackluster 2019 season. The misfortune continued in 2020, as presumed starter King Doerue suffered a hamstring injury before the start of the season. But in 2021 hope is renewed for the running back room, now older and more experienced with some interesting options this year.
Zander Horvath – Starter
Once news of Doerue’s injury broke the night before the season opener last year pretty much the entire running game rested on Horvath’s back and frankly he delivered when called upon. In 2019, Horvath averaged 4.8 yards per carry on just 79 carries over 10 games, and in
2020 was able to increase that average to 5 yards per carry, even with an increase in workload from 8 carries per game to nearly 15 in 2020. One might think at 6’3” 230 lbs Horvath would make a living running up the gut and powering through, but his real upside was on the outside in open space. This became evident early in the 3rd quarter of the season opener against Iowa when he broke open a 33 yard run on an outside counter, hurdled a safety and then dragged a middle linebacker 5 more yards. According to PFF of Horvath’s 442 rushing yards, a staggering 331 of those yards were after contact. This means a mix of two big things, he’s extremely hard to tackle, which we already know, but also that he was being contacted a bit too much. Another aspect of Horvath’s game that is really underrated is utilizing him as a receiver, which makes sense based on how well he performs running on the outside. In 2020 he had 30 receptions for 304 yards, of which 329 yards were after catch according to PFF. Now you may be scratching your head there, how can someone have more yards after catch than regular yards, well remember Horvath is a back so a good chunk of the time he is catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage and thus he has more yards after catch than yards. Just more fuel to the fire on getting Horvath the ball in space. Looking forward to watching Horvath bully corners and hurdle more safeties this fall.
King Doerue – Contributor
As mentioned before King Doerue’s season had a hard time getting off the ground in 2020 after a hamstring injury caused him to miss the first two games of the season completely and by the third game Horvath had already entrenched himself as the starter. Doerue would go on to get 17 carries for 64 yards in 2020, that’s not on him rather just how good of a season Horvath had in 2020. But in 2019, Doerue had a solid true freshman performance when he himself was called upon after Tario Fuller was injured in training camp. He rushed for 451 yards on 130 carries and added an additional 148 yards on 20 receptions, good for 4 yards per touch. While none of those numbers really stick out of the page to you, they are really solid for a true freshman campaign and will be a building block for Doerue heading into 2021. Even though I have Horvath penciled in as the starter, I believe Doerue will get a decent amount of carries to open the season and have a chance to push himself into more playing time, should the overall run game improve and be utilized more.
Dylan Downing – Backup
This will be Downing’s first season with the Boilermakers after he transferred from UNLV to Purdue during the 2020 football season and enrolled early in January. Downing was a true freshman last year coming out of perennial Indiana highschool powerhouse Carmel. At 6’0” 225 lbs, Downing is a bigger back that possesses solid speed for his size and good vision. There isn’t much more to say without going off of old high school tape, but in a room where Purdue has needed bodies, bringing home an in-state kid from a winning program made all the sense in the world. Winners win and that is something the Purdue staff will count on from Downing during his Purdue career. Word has it that he has done well at camp so far and could carve out a niche on offense and could be a nice piece in goal line situations this fall.
Ja’Quez Cross – Redshirt/Potential Contributor
Ja’Quez Cross makes his way to Purdue all the way from Fordyce, Arkansas, a town of under 5,000 people an hour south of Little Rock. To say Purdue really dug to find Cross would be an understatement, as his offer came in late in the 2021 class recruiting cycle and despite having no P5 offers at the time. Now this might have some worries based on that, but the second you flip on the tape, all the worries just melt away as he zooms past defender after defender. While leading his team to a 15-0 season and state title Cross rushed for 872 yards on 100 carries with 20 touchdowns and added another 751 receiving yards on just 35 catches, 9 of which went for touchdowns. Video game numbers. Cross is unlike anybody else Purdue has in the running back room, at 5’10” 180 lbs, he is small and shifty and that’s already after he has added at least 10 lbs since arriving at Purdue. There is definitely a role Cross can fill this season, but the biggest question will be if he can handle taking Big Ten hits just yet as a true freshman. Not many can, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see this go either way as a red-shirt or change up type back this season.
Sampson James – ????
During camp news broke that former 4-star running back Sampson James would be entering the transfer portal from Indiana. Many joked about how great it would be if the Avon alum would dawn the black and gold once again and transfer to Purdue, and much to my shock and I think frankly everyone’s shock, it actually happened. Now the 6’1” 220 lbs back has yet to be added to the official Purdue roster as the paperwork side of things gets handled, the questions remain if he will be eligible for the 2021 season and if he can get into the locker room fast enough to carve out a role in the running back room. With the current state of the NCAA, nobody really knows what will happen with his eligibility since he entered the portal after the July 1st deadline for the new “free one time transfer” policy that was instituted this fall, but I am leaning towards him not being eligible this season. Should I be wrong, Purdue will have another experienced option in the backfield potentially later in the season as he learns the playbook.
Reserves: Zac Tuinei, Will Chapman, Devin Mockobee, Caleb Lahey