Saints RB coach Joel Thomas sees potential in stable of runners beyond Ingram, Kamara
Saints running backs coach Joel Thomas played the position in college at Idaho. While with the Vandals, he teamed with former Saints quarterback Doug Nussmeier.
Thomas tallied 3,929 career yards and 51 touchdowns, finishing his days as the Idaho’s all-time leading rusher.
Now, he has his hand on the pulse of the stable of of running backs in New Orleans.
The one challenge the offense will be facing to begin the ’18 campaign will be overcoming the absence of Mark Ingram for the first four games. Ingram accounted for 1,171 yards rushing with 12 touchdowns last season.
New Orleans was the NFC’s fourth best rushing attack last year with 2,070 yards and 23 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per attempt. The yards per carry was tied for the best in the NFL.
It will be difficult to replace Ingram, but Thomas feels like it is a workable problem to solve.
“The strength of Mark is that he is a productive runner, he understands, he moves the chains, he plays like a big back at times. He’s consistent with his play,” Thomas explained. “And that’s what we’re looking for, to fill that void, someone has to step in, be consistent in their play.”
The Saints hold an ace up their sleeve with the 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara. His role will be tweaked from the ’17 campaign.
“It has changed from finding out who he is and what he’s doing to getting to have every down availability for us,” Thomas described.
Kamara accounted for 1,901 all purpose yards, third most in the League. He ran for 794 yards and nine scores.
Aside from the production, Thomas recognizes a maturity and a hunger in Kamara.
“He’s been here for 12 months. You watch film throughout last season. As coaches we’re always being critical. There are things that he can improve on with his game, whether it’s a subtle read on a slash or a decision on some of his routes. He’s immersed himself in his playbook. He’s not dealing with all the transition of a rookie anymore and the newness of the NFL. He’s got a little swag about himself. He’s gotten better with Drew. He’s got a year in and you can see he’s gotten better.”
Head coach Sean Payton notices a positive jump in Kamara’s game as well.
“He was a quick study to begin with, so there’s nuances within the running game or passing game that come in year two. But he’s a guy that seldom surprises you when it comes to an assignment. He knows what he’s doing and he has good football awareness,” Payton noted.
The Saints have other backs who are candidates to fill in for Ingram. They all bring a different skill set. All still have a learning curve.
“They’re all young,” Thomas said. “They are all like a piece of puddy, forming into what you’d like to get done. They all can improve.”
Former Arkansas standout Jonathan Williams has nice size and carries 223 pounds on his 6-foot frame. There is potential there but he will have to show continued improvement in ball security and vision.
“He has some looseness in his hips. He can maneuver a little bit. We’ll know more when the pads go on. He has some physicality as well,” said Thomas about Williams, who spent most of the 2017 season on Denver’s practice squad.
The main backup to Ingram and Kamara last season was Trey Edmunds, who returns looking to take advantage of more opportunities. Like Williams, he is listed at 223 pounds and has burst to break longer runs as well.
“Trey is still learning the offense. Last year he got that one game (vs. Bills with a 41 yard TD run). He just has to get more familiar with the QB’s and what’s going on with the offense. His game has improved a little bit.”
Daniel Lasco is an all-effort performer who sacrifices his body on special teams. If he can stay health, the former Cal star might again secure at least a roster spot for a third season with the Saints.
“His high point is that he plays wreckless. He’s back again and ready to roll.”
Lasco was injured last season and taken off the field in an ambulance. There are also concerns about concussions moving forward.
This week, the Saints Terrence West, former third round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2014. He has run for 1,816 yards in the four years he has spent in the NFL with 11 touchdowns. His best season came in 2016, when he led the Baltimore Ravens in rushing.
“He’s a between the tackles runner, good vision, runs with power. He has adequate speed, good cutting ability. He’s a very determined runner in the red zone,” said Thomas.
One new addition that players, coaches and fans are all watching closely is sixth round pick Boston Scott from Louisiana Tech. The rookie ran for 1,040 yards and eight touchdowns. Undersized at just a shade less than 5-foot7, Scott is the exact same size as Jacquizz Rodgers, an eight-year NFL veteran.
Scott possesses a multitude of skills that could earn him significant playing time in a variety of roles.
“I think that his game continues to improve,” Thomas said. “He shows the ability to dip in and out of holes. He bounces outside. He has done well with what we have given him and will continue to build on that.”
Scott, a Zachary High alum, gained 4.2 yards per carry following contact last season and caused 45 missed tackles in 180 touches. He squats 600 pounds, bench presses 405 and power cleans 390. On top of that strength, he has posted an impressive 38.5″ vertical. Add to that his 4.4 forty, and you have to think Scott has a chance to stick as a rookie and perhaps provide insurance for what Kamara brings to the offense.
Scott will have the best help one can as a leader of the offense. Having Drew Brees in the huddle can be an intimidating but calming affect for a young player. Brees often serves as a mentor to the young backs.
“There may be a little variation that Drew will correct or will remind them about in the huddle,” Thomas explained. “With Drew being here as long as he has, there is a lot of information in his brain. A back like Boston Scott hasn’t heard half the stuff that Drew has been through. There is a definite advantage having Drew back there with our backs.”
There’s no question that the leadership and talent of Brees make it easier for running backs to succeed in the Saints offense. Whichever running backs have the chance to shine in the regular season, it will be up to them to take advantage of a (black and) golden opportunity.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…