Lost: Mark Yezovich
Returning: LaRod Stephens-Howling*, Conredge Collins*, Shane Brooks, Kevin Collier
Newcomers: Sharif Harris, Henry Hynsoki, LeSean McCoy, Greg Williams
Breakdown: Stephens-Howling and Collins ran with the first-team at tailback and fullback, respectively, while Collier and Brooks split second-team tailback reps. Brooks also took repetitions at fullback and can play both spots.
Positives: Stephens-Howling clearly was the best back, using a nice burst to get through holes and good hesitation moves to make defenders miss. Collins bulked up, which made him stronger. Collier improved in hitting the holes quickly and has a nice ability to bounce outside. Brooks balanced his power running with good receiving ability out of the backfield. The Panthers now have four backs who have shown they can play.
Negatives: At 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, questions remain about Stephens-Howling’s durability and late-game effectiveness. Collins and Collier have to show more consistency in practice. Brooks has to hold onto the ball, as he is prone to fumbling. Although all four backs are capable runners, none are considered the total package.
X factor: McCoy promises to be the every-down back the Panthers are lacking, which makes him the most pivotal player in the recruiting class. He has size (6-0, 210), breakaway speed, open-field moves and a superstar quality missing from the offense since Larry Fitzgerald left for the NFL. McCoy must show that he can handle every aspect of the position, especially pass blocking, and can make a quick adjustment to major-college football after missing the majority of his senior season with a broken ankle and spending a year in prep school. At worst, he should split carries with Stephens-Howling. Hynoski is a bruising runner, but has to make the transition from primary ball-carrier to a block-first mentality. He has the ability to contribute right away, but Collins and Brooks might be able to allow him to redshirt.
Projected starters: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Conredge Collins. Stephens-Howling rushed for nearly 900 yards and nine touchdowns last season and has earned the job, while Collins proved to be productive in a limited role that could expand this fall. Look for McCoy to lighten Stephens-Howling’s workload early and eventually take over.