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2023 TCU Football Position Review: Running Backs

We look back at the performance of the running back room over the course of the 2023 season.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Christian Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our football position review series. Today we will take a look at the running back room and grade the performance of the players who saw significant playing time.

TCU finished the 2023 season averaging 154.5 yards per game on the ground, ranking 70th nationally. The Horned Frogs totaled 1,845 yards rushing on the season. Emani Bailey led the Frogs in rushing on the season with just over 100 yards per contest, so we’ll start there.

This season Emani Bailey rushed for 1,209 yards on 223 carries, giving him an average of 5.4 yards per touch. He also added 8 touchdowns on the year. Bailey’s 1,209 yard season ranked 14th in the FBS. Surprisingly, that number was only good for 4th in the Big 12. The Big 12 was home to some of the best running backs in the country, and Bailey was one of them. In addition to his production on the ground, Bailey caught 25 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. In addition, on Bailey’s 248 touches he did not fumble a single time. And we all know how I feel about protecting the football.

One of Bailey’s best runs of the season came in the first game against Colorado. This run epitomized everything that Bailey brought to the table. Bailey ran hard, made quick decisions, and did not waste a second getting north & south. He was great in open space, and forced tons of missed tackles throughout the season.

Another great example here - Bailey hits this hole so fast that none of the OU defenders stood a chance. Even with the defensive lineman managing to get a hand on him and slow him down a bit, Bailey bursts free for the easy score.

When I looked at Emani Bailey’s splits by field position on ESPN I was a little surprised. While this is not entirely Bailey’s fault, it is interesting to note that as TCU got closer to the end zone they got progressively worse at running the football. Inside the opponent 10 Emani Bailey lost 4 yards on 13 rush attempts! Inside the 20 he averaged just 3.5 a carry, but he did have 4 touchdowns. On the flip side, when TCU was backed up Bailey averaged a whopping 7.4 yards per carry.

When you break down Bailey’s rush attempts by down you see a very interesting trend emerge. On 4th down Bailey picked up 3 yards on 3 total attempts. On 3rd down, Emani Bailey only touched the ball 23 times all season. 18 rush attempts picked up jut 39 yards, while Bailey caught 5 passes for 32 yards. I know many TCU fans are not fond of Kendal Briles. I do not think he’s the worst offensive coordinator in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but this right here is criminal. Emani Bailey was the best player on the TCU offense this season. The Frogs attempted 176 third downs this year. Having your best player touch the ball on just 13% of your third down attempts does not make sense to me.

After a great junior season Emani Bailey declared for the NFL draft. I’m not sure I agree that it’s the best decision, especially given the devaluing of the running back position that has occurred in the NFL. However, Bailey is gone, and that means the Frogs will only return 21% of their total rushing yards next year.

Emani Bailey 2023 Grade: A-

Next up we will take a look at Trey Sanders. The Alabama transfer arrived in Fort Worth with high hopes. Ultimately, it was a disappointing season. Sanders has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and he never looked like he was 100% this year either. Sanders finished the 2023 season with 176 yards on 48 carries, giving him an average of 3.7 yards per carry. He also added 6 touchdowns. It’s also worth noting that 34 of his 48 rush attempts came in the first 4 games of the season.

Sanders showed some promise early on. He ran hard in the Colorado game, and he picked up some tough yards. His first touchdown run of the season was a good one, showing great vision to bounce outside and pick up an easy score.

He’d score again in a similar fashion later in the game, but that was pretty much the end of Trey Sanders’ highlights for the season. Sanders did not have a single explosive run on the year as his long was just 18 yards. The former 5-star recruit had hoped to get his career back on track, but it just hasn’t happened yet. This is one of my issues with the recruiting world. In my opinion, production needs to be there for a kid to be given stars. The recruiting services will make a kid a 5-star recruit just because he looked good at a camp. According to MaxPreps, Trey Sanders rushed for just 1,587 yards in his 3 year varsity career. To me, that’s not 5-star production.

As of right now, Trey Sanders will be back in Fort Worth next year, but I do not expect him to be RB1 by any means. Perhaps he will be able to fill the role of a short yardage back.

Trey Sanders 2023 Grade: D

Finally, we’ll take a quick look at the true freshman Cam Cook. Over the summer I did a breakdown of Cam’s high school film and really liked what I saw. I think he’s a kid with a lot of potential, and he could very well be the next great TCU back.

Cook had touches in 8 games this year, so he did not redshirt. Honestly, I would have liked to see him touch the ball more in that case. Cook finished the season with 16 carries for 56 yards. His long was 16 yards, and his best game was against BYU where he had 27 yards on 4 carries.

Cook was a 4-star recruit for the Frogs. According to MaxPreps, Cook rushed for 2,899 yards in his 3 years of varsity football. He capped off his high school career with a 1,589 yard senior season that also included 20 touchdowns. Now you see my issue with Trey Sanders being a 5-star recruit?

I’m not going to give Cam Cook a grade because he only touched the ball 16 times. I do, however, want to point out that as a recruit Cook was listed at 5-11, 175 pounds. On the TCU website he is currently listed at 195 pounds. As he continues to gain muscle and speed he can develop into an every down back. I’m excited for his future with the Frogs.


2024 Outlook

Right now I have to believe that Cam Cook will end up being RB1 for TCU. Trey Sanders will likely get touches as well, and he’ll probably be the go-to back in short yardage situations. The Frogs have 2 incoming freshmen who could possibly contribute next year.

Jeremy Payne is a 4-star recruit out of Hightower HS in Missouri City, TX. Payne is 5-10, 165 pounds. The other is 3-star recruit Nathaniel Palmer out of Decatur, TX. Palmer checks in at 5-10, 180. In my opinion, Sonny Dykes needs to chase a running back with some more size in the transfer portal. Trey Sanders did not pan out as hoped this year, and the other backs on the roster don’t have the size needed for short yardage situations.

I expect to see some real regression from this position group in 2024 unless some of these guys take big steps forward. With Chandler Morris transferring out, I expect Briles will continue to have Josh Hoover air it out next year. Not sure how I feel about that.