Thursday morning, we confirmed that former Penn running back Lyle Marsh will miss the 2013 season due to academic issues. He is not academically ineligible but is choosing to focus his efforts solely on academics in what is his final year of eligibility.
So what is a Quakers’ running attack without Lyle Marsh missing?
For starters, an Ivy League-level dash of former NFL ball-carrier Brian Westbrook, one of the best receiving running backs of his era. Marsh was one of senior quarterback Billy Ragone’s most reliable safety valves catching passes out of the backfield. Last season, Marsh caught 34 passes for 276 yards and four receiving touchdowns, good for second on the team behind senior wideout Conner Scott in all three categories.
While Ragone and Andrew Holland combined for seven interceptions at Lafayette in the season opener, they still knew they could depend on Marsh, who registered eight receptions for 66 yards and two touchdowns. And down the stretch, Marsh was clutch, racking up a career-high 130 rushing yards in the Ivy title-clinching win over Harvard and surpassing 100 rushing yards in each of his final three games with Penn football.
It’s not just Marsh who’s missing, though. Also gone for good is Jeff Jack, whose presence in each game over the last three seasons gave Penn stability during Marsh’s and fifth-year senior Brandon Colavita’s numerous injuries in recent years.
But even with Marsh’s career now in the books for good, the Quakers return a backfield with a tremendous amount of upside. Junior Spencer Kulcsar proved he belonged in short-yardage situations last year, contributing the Quakers’ final and outright Ivy-clinching and final touchdown of 2012 at Cornell, in what could be a harbinger of more paydirt punch-ins to come.
Kulcsar’s 27- and 28-yard runs in the second half against Villanova also showed he can break loose with some consistency on a Colonial Athletic Association-caliber (i.e., better than Ivy) defense. Indeed, Kulcsar’s 6.1 yards per rush in 2012 makes the reality of a backfield sans Marsh easier to digest.
So does Penn’s history of running the ball well in Marsh’s absence. Marsh decisively led the Quakers in rushing during their 2009 Ivy title run, so Penn’s rushing attack could have been expected to take a step backward in 2010 when Marsh suffered a broken forearm that caused him to miss nearly all of that season.
It didn’t. Instead, Penn posted 243.6 rushing yards per game in 2010, easily the best mark in the conference, en route to another Ivy crown.
Of course, that doesn’t mean anything, right? That team had a powerful offensive line and its two leading rushers, Brandon Colavita and Billy Ragone, are long since … oh wait, they’re still around.
And so is that powerful offensive line. 2012 All-Ivy second-teamer Chris Bush returns, along with seniors Jake Schwertner and Steve Szostak, both of whom were big components in the Quakers’ line-of-scrimmage domination against Harvard’s vaunted defensive front in last season’s Ivy-clincher.
The 2013 Quakers return six rushers and their 1149 yards on the ground from a 2011 squad that rushed for 1459 yards total. That’s a fat percentage of returning yardage to expect, and most of it comes from Colavita and Ragone. If one of those two goes down again with injury, that’s a huge problem, but it would at least be mitigated by a solid o-line and an up-and-coming Kulcsar.
What’s a little less status quo is the Westbrook department. Who will catch passes out of the backfield in the clutch now? Colavita is a rock-pounder, not a pass-catcher. Kulcsar is unproven here. Conner Scott and senior Ryan Mitchell are threats downfield and in the slot, not often in the vicinity for a swing pass or check-down.
So maybe the answer to who will replace Marsh as a receiver is … nobody? Question marks like that in the short passing game aren’t the best for Ragone, who seems to thrive when his progressions are simplified and he’s dinking and dunking.
Still, Ragone and fellow fifth-year senior quarterback Ryan Becker should be able to make considerable due with Scott, Mitchell and junior tight end Mitch King to throw to. If Marsh is all he’s missing, Ragone can still be Ragone.
With Marsh’s early exit, then, the status quo is more tenuous, but it’s still the status quo. Penn will wind up relying on an evolving stable of running backs, a field-stretching Conner Scott and Billy Ragone. Only time will tell how much the new question mark Marsh leaves behind will matter with all of the familiar old exclamation points on offense still around.