September 13, 2005
RALEIGH -- The intrigue surrounding N.C. State's talented running backs was supposed to start getting clearer once the season started.
Some questions were answered in the Wolfpack's 20-16 loss to Virginia Tech. Sophomore Darrell Blackman got the start and the bulk of the playing time. Junior Reggie Davis was the primary backup, and true freshman Toney Baker got his feet wet.
But for the most part, there are more questions now than ever about how things stack up and what's going through the minds of coach Chuck Amato and coordinator Marc Trestman. Conspicuously missing against Tech was sophomore Bobby Washington, outside of a stint on special teams. Freshmen Andre Brown and Jamelle Eugene didn't get in at all.
It was understood from the start that, with only one football, not everyone was going to get the playing time he wanted. Somebody or somebodies were going to be the odd men out. But what's this say about the way Amato and Trestman plan to proceed?
Blackman got the nod for a variety of reasons beyond mere talent -- his experience, his understanding of the system, his ability to catch passes coming out of the backfield, his reliability. Amato wanted the most dependable back in there in a high-stakes opener against Tech's rugged, veteran-laden defense.
Blackman wound up with 12 carries for 58 yards and was State's leading rusher. For the most part, he looked good, especially on the opening drive when State marched for its only touchdown. But he also made mistakes on two of the biggest plays of the game, plays that had a direct impact on the loss. He fumbled near midfield to stall one second-half drive, and he called a fair catch inside the State one-yard line soon thereafter. Tech took advantage of that gaffe and parlayed great field position into the game-winning touchdown.
So here are the questions concerning Blackman: If most of your good moments come at less consequential times and your bad moments turn out to be huge, game-affecting blunders, did you have a good game or a bad game? If you're in the game because of your reliability and you wind up making mistakes that turn a potential win into a loss, are you really all that reliable? Did Blackman do enough good to justify getting the bulk of playing time, or did he do enough bad to justify giving someone else the next opportunity?
Davis carried nine times for 35 yards, usually in short-yardage situations. He's the biggest and probably the best power guy among the six running backs, so maybe the Tech game did define his role to a degree. He'll be the short-yardage guy, the man Amato may want to use in games where he wants to play it a little closer to the vest.
The question on Davis: Does he have the potential upside that some of the other backs have, and does he have to be used solely in specific situations? Is his straight-ahead style good with the new zone blocking schemes State is using this season?
Baker carried three times for a net of five yards against Tech, and he returned one kickoff for 28 yards. It was a token appearance in one sense. Amato made it clear that he wanted to go with veterans in an opener of such magnitude. The fact that the coach made a point to get Baker a few touches showed that he is very high on him.
Baker, by most accounts, did some eye-opening things in preseason practice. Most observers consider him the one with the most sheer talent among the six. There already are some indications that he is going to be really, really special.
The question on Baker: How long will it take him to get the system down pat and move into the spotlight? Will he be as special under the lights as he was in high school and in the preseason? At what point does he deserve to become the guy, and at what point does Amato make that commitment?
Amato said in his post-Virginia Tech media sessions that he wanted to get Baker specifically more involved in the future. No doubt that a Sept. 17 non-conference home game with Eastern Kentucky will give Amato a chance to get Baker some carries. But with an absolute must-win situation against North Carolina the following week, will Baker be far enough along to have Amato's complete trust, or will Amato still feel safer with his
Washington Situation Most Difficult
The Washington situation was the real stunner against Tech, and the one that holds the greatest potential for controversy and/or a transfer. Few figured that he would be the odd man out, but he was. Amato hasn't talked specifically about why Washington didn't play, only why the others did play. And Washington either has avoided talking to the media or has been shielded from the media since.
That naturally leads to speculation. Much of the speculation in this case centered on reports that Washington had been fumble-prone in the preseason and was more prone to missing assignments than the others. He, too, could be less effective with zone blocking, where vision, patience and cut-back ability are more important than merely hitting a hole or out-running somebody.
So the questions surrounding Washington are: Was Amato sending a T.A. McLendon-type message by benching Washington? Or has Amato already decided to go in a different direction? Does this make Washington even more eager to show his stuff when his chance comes, or does it make him the early candidate to get disgruntled? He talked about possibly transferring after his freshman season, and that was before Baker and Brown ever set foot on campus. Is he in Amato's doghouse, and if so, how deep is he in it?
Eugene was No. 6 on the list from the start and seems destined to redshirt this year. Decisions must be made on Brown. He seemed to have a good attitude about not playing against Tech, and perhaps it would pay to redshirt him this year, with so many others ahead of him. A scenario exists where Blackman could move out to Tramain Hall's halfback slot next year, and if Washington did happen to leave, then Baker and Brown could be set as the primary runners, with Davis still around for short-yardage situations.
Of course, injuries could make some of Amato's decisions easier.
This remains a work-in-progress in the sense that the backs all are still adjusting to the zone blocking schemes and how to be effective in them. Amato was upset with the way his backs handled that against a good Tech defense. He felt that the wrong cuts were made several times, and that backs didn't wait for the holes to open properly. Again, that could pave the way for Baker to emerge, if in fact he has the best vision and feel of the bunch.
The problem is, if Amato gets more backs more involved against Eastern Kentucky and they all play well, then he has more issues to deal with again for the North Carolina game. This one definitely could go on for a while.