After the 2005 championship season, I giggled drunkenly about Jamaal Charles and his chance to be the "best tailback to ever play at Texas when it's all said and done." (There's a reason I love Bill Walton, you know...)
Charles' sophomore encore, and the running game as a whole, was a mild disappointment, however. Compare Jamaal's freshman and sophomore seasons:
His net production didn't drop off much in 2006, but his efficiency plummeted. After a whopping 7.4 yards per carry in his freshman campaign, Charles regressed to the mean, picking up only 5.3 yards per pop last season.
To put the numbers in context, last year's 7+ yards per carry (min. 100 attempts) tailbacks are charted below:
Meanwhile, down in the 5.3 yards per attempt range, Charles is surrounded by Jonathan Stewar, Tyrell Sutton, and Matt Forte.
Yards per carry, of course, is not the be all and end all of a running back's worth. After all, Ricky Williams "only" averaged 5.9 yards per attempt during his Heisman Trophy-winning senior season. Rutgers' Ray Rice set the Big East rushing record last season on 5.4 yards per attempt.
But therein also lies the rub: Williams (366 attempts) and Rice (335 attempts) were given the football over and over again. And then still more. Charles rushed about half that many times in 2006. Though his efficiency numbers are fine (if not elite as they were in '05), an elite tailback must excel at one or the other. Either he must spring for big yards per attempt or he must be capable of handling two or three dozen carries per game, while maintaining a solid average.
Charles accomplished neither in 2006. Splitting carries with Selvin Young, he never had the opportunity to amass large numbers of attempts, and when he did get the ball, he didn't produce like the elite back that many of us think he is.
So what now? If Charles is as special as we think he is, there's some reason to think he could enjoy an explosion in production similar to the gains Reggie Bush enjoyed between his sophomore and junior seasons (from 6.4 to 8.7 YPA). Given the concerns about Charles' ability to carry a heavy workload, that's probably the ideal scenario - a modest increase in attempts (up to, say, 200, the number of attempts Bush had in '05) with a jump in efficiency back to his freshman season rates.
Reggie Bush may not be an ideal comparison for any running back, and I don't mean to say Charles has that kind of season in him this (or any) year. Still, we've seen enough highlight material from Charles to know that he's got similar explosiveness and the ability to pick up 6.5+ yards per attempt.
While many wonder whether Charles is built for 25-30 attempts per game, I think the more important question is how Davis gameplans the offense as a whole. You'll soon grow tired of hearing me talk about this, but one more time: the strength of the Texas passing offense ought to motivate Davis to run off of the pass, and not vice versa. If that happens, I haven't a doubt in the world that Charles can enjoy a 200 attempt, 1300 yard season.