Any time a football team returns its top six players at a position, there is going to be a lot of optimism for excellent production. That is the case for Georgia State at the running back position. Former Kentucky transfer Donald Russell leads the group and returns for one final season as a Panther. He will be backed up primarily by juniors Travis Evans and Parris Lee. Rounding out the depth at the position for Georgia State will be fifth year senior Malcom Smith, senior Roosevelt Watson, and sophomore Rendell Wilder.
Georgia State’s backfield will be one of the deepest and most talented units on the team. Along with the efforts of mobile quarterback Kelton Hill, the running backs were able to increase the team’s rushing production on the season from 1,356 yards in 2010 to 1,847 yards in 2011. This season the running game will be relied upon more than ever to add stability to an offense that has struggled to find an identity over its first two seasons.
Donald Russell- The transfer from Kentucky, lovingly referred to as "The Donald" by the Panther faithful, was the team’s leading rusher last season, finishing the year with 665 yards despite being limited by injuries. Russell started off the season splitting carries evenly with Travis Evans and impressed right away by scoring 4 touchdowns in the team’s first three games. Russell then missed the Houston game with an injury, but would return against Murray State where he would begin a four game stretch where he would carry the ball 73 times for 386 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and 5 touchdowns. However, another injury would limit him against St. Francis and West Alabama before he closed the season with a season high 146 yards.
Russell arrived on campus last season and some doubted whether or not he would be productive as he appeared to be slightly overweight and out of shape. He proved the doubters wrong however with an extremely productive season that was marred by knee and ankle injuries.
"The Donald" responded to those injury issues by becoming quite the workout warrior in the off season. He appeared in fall camp as a chiseled specimen with tree trunks for legs. While he may not have elite top end speed, he has tremendous agility and ball carrier vision. Russell needs to continue to build his strength in the offseason to build his durability and be able to become an every down back. If he were to get 20 carries per game, then he could be a Walter Payton candidate. However, concerns with his durability as well as the depth for the Panthers at running back probably will not allow that to happen.
Travis Evans- Evans, junior, has been a model of consistency for Georgia State over his first two seasons in the blue and white. He was the team’s second leading rusher in 2010 and the third leading rusher in 2011, finishing behind mobile quartertback Kelton Hill both seasons as well as Donald Russell in 2011. He has averaged 4.6 yards per carry over those two seasons and contributed in the passing game as well by recording the third most receptions on the team in 2011. His best performance of the season was when he rushed for 70 yards against Houston in Russell’s absence. He also missed a limited amount of time due to injury last season and was slightly banged up during spring practice.
Evans is a fearless runner who slams through the smallest of holes and has great speed to get to the second level. He is one of the more complete backs on the team in that he excels at carrying the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield, as well as blocking. Evans will likely be a consistent target of presumed starter Ben McLane, who consistently prefers to check down rather than take a chance on a risky pass down the field. One of his more important qualities, however, is that he is one of the vocal leaders of the team.
Evans will continue to spell Russell and will likely finish somewhere in the 300 yards rushing mark with 15-20 catches. If Russell were to again have problems with durability, Panther fans can rest easy knowing #21 will be there to fill in.
Parris Lee- The junior from Jacksonville, Florida is one of the most talented players on the roster and was one of the first three star athletes, as rated by rivals.com, to sign with Georgia State. However, other than recording the first touchdown in Panther history, Lee’s production has been rather limited.
Lee came to Georgia State as a slot wide receiver, but was moved to running back before the start of the 2010 season. He is a tremendous athlete and has made his most significant contribution on kickoff returns, where he averaged 23.2 yards per return in 2011. His four yards per carry average on 40 attempts in 2010 was good enough for third on the team, but his production dropped in an injury shortened 2011 as he rushed the ball just 19 times for 58 yards (3.1 yards per carry).
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Lee is one of the best athletes on the field any time he is in the game. He has the ability to break open a big play at any time and is a versatile threat out of the backfield. Look for Lee to be the Panther’s main kick returner in order to protect Albert Wilson and his production as a receiver, and for him to get some chances as a change of pace to Russell and Evans.
Malcom Smith- Smith is a former walk on who has been relied upon to add depth at the running back throughout his Panther career. However, when given the opportunity to be one of the leading backs while Evans, Lee, and Russell being injured towards the end of the year, he responded with 37 yards on eight carries against West Alabama and 34 yards on five carries against Campbell including a 12 yard touchdown run. He continued that production into the spring and recorded 17 yards on four carries in the Spring Scrimmage.
Smith was rumored to be considering leaving the team in 2012 and just focusing on school, but decided to return for one final season. Offensive Coordinator John Bond said that due to the roster limitations for travel in the CAA, there will only be three running backs taken to away games. Russell and Lee seem like sure bets, therefore Smith will be battling with three others for the final spot. If Lee continues to struggle with inconsistency or durability, Smith is a capable option to fill that final spot, as he showed with his performance towards the end of last season.
Roosevelt Watson- This senior was the Panthers starting running back during the inaugural season, but was less productive than Lee and Evans and therefore losing a grip on that position. A preseason knee injury limited Watson to just two games in 2011 just one rushing attempt.
Unfortunately, the best memory most have of Watson is a 39 yard trick play touchdown pass to Danny Williams in a loss against NAIA school Lambuth in 2010. Watson came back from the injury this spring and was very productive. That productivity showed in the Spring Scrimmage where he ran the ball for 34 yards on just six carries. Watson will see a very limited number of carries throughout the season and will be counted on as more of a leader off the field rather than his production on the field.
Rendell Wilder- Wilder finds himself entering 2011 as the only scholarship running back that will be an underclassman. He took a redshirt during the 2010 season and contributed mainly as a kick returner in 2011, returning 8 kicks at an average of 16.6 yards per return.
Wilder will be buried on the depth chart most of this season and next, but his athleticism will allow him to continue to contribute on special teams in preparation for his day to become a productive ball carrier for the Panthers. He showed flashes of good talent during spring practice and the future certainly looks bright for the Decatur native.
All six of the Panthers returning running backs have seen game action and all have productive in some capacity. This is one of the deepest units on the team and will be relied upon to ease the pressure of having a freshman quarterback.