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2017 will be a big year for Mark Walton — the ACC’s best running back

Miami running back Mark Walton followed up his stellar freshman season (10 total touchdowns) with an explosive, All-ACC performance in 2016.

In Mark Richt’s debut season in Coral Gables, Walton was the team’s MVP on offense. Walton scored 14 touchdown on the ground — the most of any returning ACC running back — and was one of just 15 qualified players to average more than five yards per carry.

What lies ahead for Walton in 2017?

Well, Richt, the Hurricanes and the weight of the team’s lofty expectations hope it’s grand things. They have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

 

YAC-ety Sax

The fact of the matter is, you need more than one player to bring down Mark Walton. According to Pro Football Focus, Walton ranked third in the ACC last season in yards per attempt after contact: 3.43.

Here’s the thing, though: Jacques Patrick and Jeremy Smith — the two players ahead of him — weren’t anywhere close to Walton when it comes to volume of carries. Patrick and Smith carried the ball a combined 118 times last season.

Walton, alone, ran the ball 209 times in 2016; he was one of only 51 players to rack up 200-plus carries a season ago.

It’s an impressive feat for a high-volume player, like Walton, to combine durability, productivity and efficiency.

 

One step further — literally

Mark Walton’s yards after contact proficiency comes as little surprise, though, if you pay attention to to some of his deeper metrics. After feasting on easier competition at the start of the season, Walton cooled off slightly — before kicking things back up to close out 2016.

According to Football Study Hall, Walton recorded an Opportunity Rate of 35.4 percent in 2016. This means Miami’s offensive line “did its job” less frequently than some of the other leading runners in the ACC. Basically, this translates to the O-line producing five yards of rushing on less than 36 percent of Walton’s carries.

Hey, speaking of the number 36…

Despite the lower Opportunity Rate, though: when Walton got daylight, he made serious plays. Per Football Study Hall, Walton averaged 6.8 Highlight Yards per Opportunity. On carries when the offensive line “did its job” Walton averaged nearly an additional seven yards.

That’s why Walton was able to produce 30 carries of 10-plus yards, too.

Here’s a look at ACC running backs that racked up at least 150 carries in 2016. Of that group, Walton ranked second — a hair behind Dalvin Cook — in Highlight Yards per Opportunity. Walton was also the only 1,100-yard-rusher with an Opportunity Rate below 39 percent.

PlayerTeamCarriesYardsOpp RateHL Yards per Opp
Dalvin CookFSU2881,76542%6.9
Matt DayesNC State2491,16639%4.0
Wayne GallmanClemson2321,13341.8%4.0
James ConnerPitt2161,09234.3%6.5
Mark WaltonMiami2091,11735.6%6.8
Taquan MizzellUVA18794041.7%4.3
Jon HillmanBC18454221.7%4.6
Dontae StricklandSyracuse16256624.1%3.7
Cade CarneyWake Forest15658928.8%3.5
Dedrick MillsGeorgia Tech15277143.4%3.2
Shaun WilsonDuke15162329.1%4.0
Matt ColburnWake Forest15162629.8%3.5

*Statistics from Football Study Hall

 

As a receiver

Currently, Miami has an old fashioned quarterback battle going on for the starting job. A lot of folks believe true freshman and human wunderkind N’Kosi Perry will eventually win out.

No matter who lands the gig, though, Miami will trot out a new full-time quarterback for the first time since 2013; nowadays, Brad Kaaya is looking to backup Matt Stafford in Detroit. That being the case, the new QB could certainly use a reliable underneath pass-catcher.

Tight end Christopher Herndon will of course be a factor here, but Walton can play a role, too.

Walton caught 27 of the 38 passes thrown in his direction last season, per Football Study Hall. That’s good for a catch rate of 71.1 percent. Herndon and Walton were the only two players on Miami’s roster last season to record at least 30 targets and a catch rate above 70 percent.

 

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