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The Tailbacks

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

“There are some positions you just have to have depth at,” N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said. “Quarterback is one. Tailback is another.” Dave Glenn and Staff, ACC Area Sports Journal
September 22, 2003

Check out how our experts rank the ACC's tailbacks!

FSU Loaded With Talent, Depth TALLAHASSEE — Florida State coach Bobby Bowden always has believed that you can never have enough quality players at the tailback position, which is perhaps the most vulnerable to injury. The Seminoles have plenty of proof to support Bowden's theory. At Wake Forest in 2000, FSU lost Travis Minor, Jeff Chaney, Greg Jones and Davy Ford to injuries. The team quickly moved Nick Maddox back to his natural position from receiver, and the former prep All-American rushed for 52 yards on four carries. That's depth. Maddox stepped up again last season, when Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury at Wake, responding with a career-high 122 yards. In fact, the Seminoles had three 100-yard rushing performances over the final five games of last season, including one by freshman Leon Washington at Florida. The Seminoles arguably have never been as deep in quality backs as they are in 2003, with Jones almost completely recovered from reconstructive knee surgery and backed up by Washington, redshirt freshman Lorenzo Booker — the nation's most coveted prep recruit in 2002 — and utility rusher/receiver Willie Reid. FSU's depth already has been tested this fall. Washington (elbow) and Booker (ankle) have missed a combined five games because of injury problems, leaving only Jones and Reid, who opened the season at receiver. “They have a real good one-two punch in Jones and Booker,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said, after the Seminoles rumbled for 196 rushing yards against the Terps. “The other kid (Reid) is no slouch, either. I just wonder if he (Bowden) is working with 85 scholarships. They seem to have a lot more guys than I've got.” The depth is particularly surprising when one considers Eric Shelton's transfer to Louisville following the 2001 season and Thomas Clayton's departure for Kansas State this summer. (Both also were high-profile prep All-Americans.) But defections come with the turf for those who are impatient for the opportunity to make modest contributions in the Seminoles' crowded backfield. Still, there isn't any question about the player Bowden wants carrying the load when it matters most. Though he carefully limited Jones' carries in the early going, it's no secret that the 6-2, 248-pound senior is that player. Jones was the first big back the Seminoles signed since Sammie Smith in 1986 for specifically that reason. A downhill runner in the mold of vintage SEC tailbacks such as Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson, Jones is a punisher with breakaway speed. He's already displayed both talents, taking the helmet off All-ACC safety Dexter Reid of North Carolina in the opener, then out-running Maryland cornerback Curome Cox around the corner on a 44-yard touchdown scamper a week later. Teammates have described Jones as a “freak of nature” because of his incredible physique. When coupled with his standard-setting work ethic and relentless style, it makes him nearly unstoppable one-on-one. What sets this FSU backfield apart is its diversity. While Jones provides the power, Washington combines vision, cut-back ability and a low center of gravity to exploit defenses inside-out. Booker is blessed with high-end speed and moves, the kind the Seminoles have been lacking from the position since Warrick Dunn's graduation. Recent tailback signees: Maddox (graduated) in 1999; Jones in 2000; Reid and Shelton (transfer/Louisville) in 2001; Booker, Clayton (transfer/Kansas State) and Washington in 2002; none in 2003. Good Depth Behind Fragile Perry COLLEGE PARK — A booster with a couple beers under his belt made a sarcastic comment about tailback Bruce Perry prior to Maryland's home opener against The Citadel. Hearing another tailgater mention that Perry would miss another game with an ankle injury, the booster replied: “Yeah, I heard Perry came out of the womb limping.” That was a bit harsh, but it epitomized the widespread frustration surrounding Perry's inability to get on the field. The fragile 5-9, 203-pounder has started only one game over the past season and a half because of a myriad of minor injuries — groin pulls, sprained ankles, strained stomach muscles, bruised shoulders, etc. The Philadelphia native played in six of 12 games last season, making cameo appearances in half of those contests. He missed two of the first four games this fall with a high ankle sprain. The fifth-year senior started against Florida State but didn't last long, re-aggravating the injured ankle after 10 carries. Coach Ralph Friedgen privately is starting to question Perry's toughness again, just as he did during preseason practice in 2001. In his first season at the helm, Friedgen tired of seeing Perry on the sidelines. Of course, Perry answered that criticism with a huge redshirt sophomore campaign in which he rushed for 1,242 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He earned ACC offensive player of the year honors and praise from Friedgen for changing into a north-south type of runner with surprising power. Perry looked like a pro prospect in 2001, showing quickness and an explosive burst while seemingly always finishing off runs falling forward. Now there are serious questions about whether he can recapture his old form. Meanwhile, Maryland's tailback stable is strikingly similar to its quarterback situation, with players who were picked up as insurance suddenly playing key roles. The Terps' two quarterbacks are both transfers while, in Perry's absence, the No. 1 and 2 tailbacks are players the staff debated whether to offer scholarships. Starter Josh Allen was not initially recruited by Maryland, which at the time was loaded at tailback. However, Friedgen was impressed with Allen's ability and didn't like that he had scholarship offers from other ACC schools. “My assistants kept telling me we didn't need another tailback, but I could see Josh going someplace like Georgia Tech and Virginia and coming back to haunt us,” Friedgen said. “I'm glad we were smart enough to get Josh on our side.” Allen, a rare combination of power and speed, rushed for 407 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman. His signature game came against West Virginia, when he broke loose for a career-high 116 yards and two TDs. He picked up 91 yards on six carries versus UNC. Friedgen likes the fact that Allen has the strength to break tackles and is a threat to go all the way. He has scoring runs of 60, 70 and 72 yards. There also was serious debate among coaches about Sam Maldonado, a transfer from Ohio State. There were questions about his attitude and behavior, not to mention the usual concerns over why the former Parade All-American was leaving Columbus. Former running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley recommended against Maldonado, who was upset at being forced to play fullback at OSU. Ultimately, connections may have helped Maldonado land in College Park, as he hails from the same hometown (Harrison, N.Y.) as Friedgen and defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo. “I know everything about this kid's background, good and bad,” Friedgen said. “I know his parents, his relatives and his high school coach.” Initially, Locksley's concerns about Maldonado seemed valid, as he did poorly in school and generally didn't act like part of the team while sitting out the 2002 season. At one point, Friedgen called Maldonado into his office for a heart-to-heart chat, in which he told the player he could go elsewhere if he didn't shape up. Coaches noticed a major change in Maldonado during spring practice, as his work ethic and focus were second to none. He was a constant star of intrasquad scrimmages and led all rushers with 89 yards on 13 carries during the annual Red-White game. A powerful, between-the-tackles back, Maldonado (6-0, 231) is a strong complement to Perry and Allen. Rounding out the tailback stable are redshirt sophomore Mario Merrills, redshirt freshman J.P. Humber and true freshman Lance Ball, all of whom have shown promise. Recent tailback signees: Rich Parson (non-qualifier) and Perry in 1999; Raymond Custis (moved to safety) and Chris Downs (juco/graduated) in 2000; Jason Crawford (left team), Merrills and Parson (re-sign/moved to receiver) in 2001; Allen, Humber and Maldonado in 2002; Ball in 2003. McLendon Needs Health, Help RALEIGH — When T.A McLendon is healthy, N.C. State has one of the best running games in the ACC. When McLendon isn't healthy, the Wolfpack has a big problem. That was clearly evident in the Pack's back-to-back losses at Wake Forest and Ohio State. McLendon missed the former altogether because of a knee injury and touched the ball only 11 times in the latter. Everyone focused on the fact that McLendon, who scored the game-tying touchdown in the second overtime just after removing ice packs from both knees, came up a few inches short of getting into the end zone on the final play of the Ohio State game. If he had made that touchdown, it would have given State a chance to complete one of the greatest comebacks in ACC football history. Instead, McLendon's tailbone hit the turf before he got the ball over the goal line, and the game ended. He never got a chance to see if he could make the two-point conversion the Pack needed to complete the victory. As productive as receivers Jerricho Cotchery, Tramain Hall, Brian Clark and Richard Washington have been for State, McLendon has become the Wolfpack's second-most important offensive weapon (behind senior QB Philip Rivers), mainly because he keeps the Pack offense from being one-dimensional. When McLendon is in the game, defenses have to play more honest at the line of scrimmage, with the threat of him roaring through the line. His punishing running style gained 1,101 yards as a freshman and earned him first-team All-ACC honors. He scored more touchdowns than any freshman in ACC history, and he was a perfect fit for the Wolfpack's offensive system. Put it this way: He was a much more intimidating catching passes out of the backfield and busting through holes at the line than Ray Robinson ever thought about being. The problem is, McLendon has been nicked up for pretty much his entire career. He played eight games with a broken hand as a freshman, when he also was slowed by a bad shoulder. He incurred that while running over Pack safety Andre Maddox in the preseason, and he also dealt with a pulled groin throughout the year. McLendon certainly gets extra points for toughness, for playing through those injuries and his bad knee this year, but those are balanced out by his lack of durability. “Someone is going to question how tough this kid is? He's a tough kid. I'm glad he wears our red and white,” Amato said. “He's banged up. He hasn't been practicing, and when you don't practice you get tired, then he gets banged up again. He's played for us with one arm. … He has a lot of games left in him, and I want him to play in those.” McLendon's absence creates a serious problem for the Pack, because there are no strong options behind him this fall. With star left tackle Chris Colmer unavailable to open big holes because of a mysterious shoulder injury and State breaking in a couple of new starters up front, nobody else on the roster has been able to generate significant yardage on his own. Wolfpack fans cheered when they heard that fifth-year senior Cotra Jackson would return after missing all of last year to concentrate on academics. They figured his experience would make him good enough to be a decent backup. Jackson has been an inspirational player, but mainly on special teams. He's obviously rusty, following his year of no workouts whatsoever with the football team. He doesn't have the acceleration to hit holes, and he doesn't have the power to charge through potential tacklers. Junior Josh Brown has been similarly unproductive, although Amato twice lamented his own failure to get Brown more touches. Brown's stats didn't look bad — he averaged 4.4 yards per carry through three games, only slightly less than McLendon's 4.6 — but he carried the ball only eight times. Against Texas Tech, Brown added 16 carries for 69 yards. Brown's main problem is size. He's listed at
5-10, 185 pounds, but he looks smaller when he's on the field with the rest of his oversized offensive teammates. He's pretty quick and plenty tough, but he doesn't get many yards on his own. Amato knew tailback depth was a problem, which was why he signed three backs in February. Good idea, except that two of them — prep All-American Darrell Blackman of Pennsylvania and all-state Brian Dennison of Florida — didn't qualify academically, even under the NCAA's new (more relaxed) guidelines. That left only Reggie Davis, the least regarded of the three. So far, he has not played, as the coaches try to preserve his redshirt season. So the key for the Wolfpack, if it hopes to save what was supposed to be the most promising season in school history, is to get McLendon healthy, then keep him that way. Recent tailback signees: Jackson in 1999; none in 2000; Brown, Greg Golden (moved to cornerback), Tramain Hall (non-qualifier) and Lamont Reid (moved to cornerback) in 2001; Hall (re-signed/moved to receiver) and McLendon in 2002; Blackman (non-qualifier), Davis (probable redshirt) and Dennison (non-qualifier) in 2003. Cavs Building Impressive Depth CHARLOTTESVILLE — When SuperPrep magazine ranked the nation's top high school running backs prior to the 2001 season, Michael Johnson was third — four spots ahead of Maurice Clarett from Harding, Ohio. Even the most casual college football fan has heard of Clarett. However, any ACC football fan who can identify Johnson would have to qualify as an expert. All you have to know about the running backs situation at Virginia is that Johnson is being redshirted this year because the Cavaliers “would like to see what he could do with 200 carries some year,” coach Al Groh said. Johnson had 26 carries last year as a true freshman and wasn't projected to get a lot more playing time this year behind Wali Lundy, Alvin Pearman and Marquis Weeks. Indeed, all of UVa's running backs have at least one more year of college eligibility, including fullback Jason Snelling, who's also redshirting this year after catching 31 passes and scoring four touchdowns last season as a true freshman. Johnson, Lundy and Snelling were members of a 2002 UVa signing class that boasted six players who rushed for at least 1,000 yards the previous year, including current defensive backs Willie Davis and Tony Franklin. The sixth, departed cornerback Stefan Orange, played quarterback in high school. The only reason Lundy wasn't ranked among the nation's top running backs in the summer of 2001 was a question about his position. He was an all-state receiver as a junior at Holy Cross High School in Delran, N.J., and he demonstrated his receiving skills last year by tying an ACC record for freshmen by catching 58 passes. Lundy also rushed for a team-high 826 yards, saving his best for last when he scored four touchdowns — two rushing and two receiving — in the Cavaliers' 48-22 victory over West Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl. He was the only player to finish in the top 10 in the ACC in rushing and receiving, and he set a conference record for all-purpose yardage (1,670) by a freshman. “He has a chance to be a real big-time player,” Groh said. “He's got multiple skills. He's got a sense for the game and an innate toughness about him. As he showed last year, he's a pretty unflappable kid. He should have the opportunity to be a more physical player than he was last year.” Many predicted a break-out season for Lundy (6-1, 212) in 2003, but he nursed a tight hamstring during the preseason and gave way to Pearman (5-10, 198) early in the Cavaliers' first two games, against Duke and South Carolina. Indeed, heading into the third week of the season, Pearman stood second in the ACC in rushing. Pearman, whose younger brother is a tailback who has committed to Virginia, underwent reconstructive knee surgery after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the 10th game of the 2002 season. Once viewed as a candidate for a redshirt, he returned stronger and faster than before. Lundy, hoping to survive until an open date, regained his burst prior to a Sept. 13 game at Western Michigan and rushed for 114 yards in the first half and a total of 121 and two touchdowns in a 59-16 rout of the Broncos. Lundy also completed a touchdown pass, the second of his career. Weeks, who actually started the 2002 opener based on his preseason performance, assumed kickoff-return duties late in the year and helped turn around Virginia's season when he returned the second-half kickoff for 100 yards after the Cavaliers had fallen behind visiting North Carolina 21-0. Weeks later rushed for 129 yards in a 14-9 victory over then-No. 20 N.C. State and was considered so valuable that he started the first three games of this season at fullback. Recent tailback signees: Art Thomas (non-qualifier) in 1999; Hikee Johnson (non-qualifier/West Virginia), Thomas (re-signed/moved to cornerback, then receiver), Jonathan Ward (moved to fullback/left team/injuries) and Weeks in 2000; Pearman in 2001; Tony Franklin (moved to cornerback), Johnson and Lundy in 2002; none in 2003. Deacs Stockpiling Young Talent WINSTON-SALEM — So much has happened to the Wake Forest tailbacks recently that at many schools the position now would be a weak spot. That it's still a strength for the Demon Deacons speaks volumes about what Jim Grobe is building in his program. In 2001, Grobe opened his Wake Forest career with junior Tarence Williams, who had led the Deacons in rushing the year before. Grobe promptly guided Williams over the 1,000-yard mark, plus helped sophomore Fred Staton, a former PrepStar All-American, to 583 yards as a reserve. The Deacons led the ACC in rushing. Staton next proceeded to dominate the spring game, leaving fans drooling about the possibilities in 2002. Then the problems started. In the summer, Williams broke a bone in his foot, and Staton became academically ineligible. Suddenly, the spotlight was on inexperienced junior Nick Burney and a bunch of players who hadn't carried in a college game. Grobe used most of them, including true freshman Chris Barclay, who gained 736 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Williams returned for 879 yards, Burney added 430 and redshirt freshman Cornelius Birgs added 268. Instead of being thin, Grobe actually ended up moving another redshirt freshman, Dominic Anderson, to defense. The Deacons again led the ACC in rushing. So the offseason bred enthusiasm again. Williams was gone, but everyone else was back, including Staton. But not so fast. Fullback Ovie Mughelli was gone, too, and the Deacons didn't have a ready reserve. So Staton was headed to fullback, only he never made it back. That meant Burney had to move to become a blocker. In addition, Birgs was showing signs of being a “knothead,” as Grobe calls his disciplinary concerns. Birgs spent much of the spring in trouble, topping it off by sleeping through a Saturday scrimmage. Grobe moved Anderson back to tailback and talked of possibly needing recruit Micah Andrews (still a redshirt) to play immediately. Still, Barclay promised to be one of the league's best. But more problems followed this fall: Birgs and Barclay tweaked their ankles, and Anderson blew out his knee in the first game. Nevertheless, the Deacons haven't collapsed. Birgs proved he was serious about football by gutting out 65 yards in the opener against Boston College, after he found himself the least injured of the three tailbacks. Against N.C. State, Barclay went for 90 yards and Birgs 51 before Wake struggled on the ground against Purdue. It's been easy to see that neither back is healthy: Even when they find themselves in the open field, there's little acceleration and very few quick cuts. Despite the problems, if Barclay and Birgs can get well, they're a better duo than most in the league. Plus, they're only sophomores, as is Anderson, which makes the future bright. Andrews — the son of William, a former Auburn and Atlanta Falcons star — is the prized recruit, built in the smaller-back style (5-10, 190) Grobe prefers. In Class 2A last year, Andrews ran for 2,871 yards, the third-highest total in Georgia history. Grobe, like his basketball peer Skip Prosser, is getting a reputation for finding talent, focusing on it early and landing it. Some are saying Andrews could be his top steal yet. The other freshman is not at all like Andrews and wasn't even a running back before this season. D'Angelo Bryant (6-2, 212) played quarterback in high school, but one recruiting service had him rated among the top 40 athletes nationally. The Deacons recently made him their No. 3 tailback, and his big but fast frame provides some contrast from the rest of the small, shifty crew. Recent tailback signees: Burney (moved to fullback) and Williams (graduated) in 1999; Mike Hamlar (moved to linebacker), Preston Portee (commitment/non-qualifier) and Staton (academics) in 2000; Anderson and Birgs in 2001; Barclay in 2002; Andrews (probable redshirt), Monte Anthony (commitment/non-qualifier) and Bryant in 2003. Duke: Tailbacks A Rare Oasis DURHAM — Say what you want about Carl Franks as caretaker of a football program that is among the worst in Division I-A, but you also have to say this: The man can recruit some running backs. They don't all play running back at Duke, but that's the point. Franks has very rarely signed a running back who couldn't contribute at the Division I-A level. Two of the best players on the 2003 Blue Devils are at running back, fifth-year seniors Chris Douglas and Alex Wade. “We like where we are at that position,” Franks said. “Our challenge there is figuring out a way to get the most out of both players. That's a good problem to have.” Douglas is making a run at a 1,000-yard season, something Wade missed by a scant 11 yards in 2002. Douglas owns the school's career record for all-purpose yardage and has a shot at becoming the career rushing leader, too. Wade is a dominant back when healthy. Both players have been slowed throughout their careers by injury, with Wade going through it again this fall with a tender hamstring, but both also are fringe candidates for the NFL. At Duke, that's a rare thing. Casual Duke fans may fear the future with Douglas and Wade both running out of eligibility this season, but the cupboard will not be bare. Third-teamer Cedric Dargan is an untapped sophomore talent who has the ability to be a productive featured back if he, too, can stay healthy. “Cedric Dargan could be a guy who comes out of obscurity for the rest of the conference and has a big year if one of those guys gets nicked up,” Franks said in the preseason, although an illness slowed Dargan's progress once Wade turned up sore. “Cedric can really play. He's got nice size and speed, and we'd like to get him more carries because he can be effective. There's not a lot of drop-off from (a healthy) Chris Douglas and Alex Wade to Cedric Dargan.” Even Dargan isn't the best unsung running back on the roster. True freshman Aaron Fryer of Tampa was the jewel of the Blue Devils' 2003 signing class, and only the presence of Douglas and Wade has kept him on the sideline. Next season, he and Dargan again may give the Blue Devils a quality one-two punch at running back. Remember where you heard it first. But that doesn't even begin to cover the amount of productive talent the Blue Devils have gotten out of their running backs, most of whom don't play the position any more. Consider this list of the players who came to Duke as a running back and spent at least one season at that position: nose tackle Matt Zielinski, linebackers Brendan Dewan and Malcolm Ruff and cornerbacks Von Bryant and Jamin Pastore. Most of those names you recognize. Zielinski is an All-ACC talent, whether he gets that recognition or not, and like Douglas and Wade he will get a shot at the NFL. He has bulked up almost 50 pounds from his days as a 240-pound freshman fullback. Dewan is another potential All-ACC talent, though his best years at outside linebacker are ahead of him. He had a smashing debut there in 2002 against East Carolina, returning an interception 28 yards for a touchdown in his first career game. Ruff's ceiling might be even higher, considering he is considerably bigger than Dewan and nearly as fast. Bryant is a reserve cornerback who will start at that position before his career is done, while Pastore is another reserve corner who suffered a career-derailing knee injury in the 2001 opener against Florida State. Recent tailback signees: Brian Clemmons (academics), Douglas and Wade in 1999; none in 2000; Dargan, Dewan (moved to linebacker) and Pastore (moved to cornerback) in 2001; Bryant (moved to cornerback) and Ruff (moved to linebacker) in 2002; Fryer (probable redshirt) in 2003. Jackets Piece Together Rotation ATLANTA — P.J. Daniels is exactly the type of guy football coaches love to have in their programs. He's upbeat, outgoing, an emerging team leader and a positive force at practice, in the locker room and during games. But is he a No. 1 tailback? Daniels, a former walk-on who rose from seventh string to the top of the depth chart, is a hard-nosed, straight-ahead runner who has had some fumble problems this season. He's also Tech's starting tailback after beating out Morris Brown transfer Chris Woods, sophomore Ajenavi “Ace” Eziemefe and touted freshman Rashaun Grant in August. Tailback was expected to be a strength for the Yellow Jackets this season. Standout Tony Hollings, the nation's leading rusher before injuring his knee last season, and sophomore Michael Sampson were expected to join Daniels and Eziemefe in a deep and talented backfield. But Hollings and Sampson both failed out of school in the spring, leaving a still-crowded but somewhat suspect rotation. Daniels rushed for a career-high 113 yards against Florida State, despite being benched in the second quarter for a near-fumble. Those types of days are what Tech needs out of a very ordinary running situation. Daniels and Woods, the top two tailbacks on the depth chart, both fell into Tech's lap. Daniels, a 5-10, 205-pound redshirt sophomore, had offers to play at Stanford, Northwestern and Tulane, among other places, but those offers dried up when he failed to make a qualifying standardized test score until after national signing day. Tech said he could walk on, and he did. He started last season as the team's seventh-string tailback. His infectious personality is a plus, as is his work ethic. But those traits can overcome only so much. Daniels lacks elusiveness, and he worked this offseason on making cuts rather than just plowing ahead. Still, he's a coach's dream in many ways. “There's a guy that you look at and you're proud of every second that he plays on the football field and every yard that he gets, because it's important to him and he's worked his rear off to get to where he is,” Tech coach Chan Gailey said. “You love to see something great happen for a guy like that, because he's come a long way to get here.” Woods, a 5-10, 190-pound sophomore, has some of the quickness Daniels lacks, but he's also struggled with holding onto the ball. Woods came to Tech when Morris Brown, a Division
I-AA program in Atlanta, folded its athletic programs. After seeing game film of Woods, the Tech coaching staff — with plenty of scholarships available, thanks to the spring academic problems — offered him one. Eziemefe, a 6-1, 225-pound sophomore, got the starting job when Hollings was injured last year, but his tentative running style cost him. He could move to fullback, but questions about his toughness continue to dog him. The departures of Hollings and Sampson hurt Tech's tailback situation, as did the loss of Jermaine Hatch. Hatch showed flashes of being a top-notch tailback as a freshman in 2000, but a knee injury suffered the following spring has hampered his career. He rushed for 79 yards last season and has yet to see the field this year. Grant, a speedster, could be the answer down the line, but he's currently practicing with the scout team. Recent tailback signees: Sidney Ford (graduated), Will Glover (moved to receiver), Hatch and Mike Kitchen (academics/juco) in 1999; Jimmy Dixon (moved to fullback) and Hollings (academics/NFL) in 2000; none in 2001; Eddie Lee Ivery Jr. (injured/moved to cornerback) and Sampson (academics) in 2002; Grant (probable redshirt) and Woods in 2003. Tigers Still Seeking Playmakers CLEMSON — In the offseason, there was a real sense of urgency among the Clemson coaches to improve the running game. After watching numerous failures in short-yardage situations last season, head coach Tommy Bowden declared the Tigers would work on the I formation. The early results were not positive. Clemson's running game did improve from week to week in the first three games, but the competition was questionable in week two (Furman) and week three (Middle Tennessee State). The real tests are yet to come. Clemson's tailbacks didn't all come out of the same mold. There are scatbacks. There are battering rams. There are slashers. But there is no feature back.

“Those guys all understand their roles and have been unselfish,” Bowden said. “The most discouraging thing is that through three games, Charlie Whitehurst still has our longest run. We've got to find somebody who can break a long run.” Clemson's best back had yet to see the field through three games. Redshirt junior Yusef (formerly Keith) Kelly reported to camp overweight, suffered groin and back injuries, missed practice to spend time with his pregnant girlfriend and ultimately landed in Bowden's doghouse. Kelly started just four games last season but led the Tigers in rushing with 521 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. At 6-0 and 230 pounds, Kelly has everything but breakaway speed. He has power. He can bench press 410 pounds and hang clean 380 pounds, the third-best figure on the team. But he often loses favor with coaches by missing practice time. “He runs real good in shorts,” Bowden said, after Kelly missed his third straight game to start the season. “Unfortunately, Georgia Tech (the week four opponent) has declined their offer to play in shorts for Yusef. They will not do it.” Kelly's most memorable performance came in last year's South Carolina game. He carried 10 times for 64 yards against the Gamecocks and helped kill the clock in the fourth quarter, with the Tigers clinging to a seven-point lead. Clemson's most experienced back is graduate student Chad Jasmin, who is listed as the starting fullback but also has been used at tailback. If the Tigers need a yard, Jasmin is the back most likely to get the call. Entering this season, his career average was 4.4 yards per carry. Redshirt sophomore Kyle Browning got the start against MTSU. He's little (5-7, 180), but he can scoot and he's not afraid to run between the tackles. Pound for pound, he has the second-highest power index on the team, at 7.94. He rushed for 53 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry against MTSU. “I try to use my size to my advantage,” Browning said. “I try to hide behind the linemen and then at the last minute, before they know I'm on them, I try to break one.” Sophomore Duane Coleman, rated the
No. 1 running back in the state of Florida as a high school senior, started three of the first four games this fall after sitting out last season as a partial qualifier. Coleman, who is easily recognized by the dreadlocks hanging out of the back of his helmet, is a shifty runner. Through four games, he led the Tigers with 48 carries for 203 yards and a touchdown. There was a lot of buzz in the preseason about redshirt freshman Reggie Merriweather. He rushed for 2,580 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at North Augusta (S.C.) High School. In practice, he has shown the ability to be a breakaway threat, but that talent has not yet translated to game days. The Tigers added two true freshman running backs on the roster in 2003. Tramaine Billie was moved to defense during pre-fall camp and looks impressive at the whip linebacker position. Because of the depth in front of him, Brandon Nolen probably will not see the field this year. Recent tailback signees: Jasmin and Bernard Rambert (graduated) in 1999; Terrance Huey (medical/seizures) and Kelly in 2000; Browning, Tye Hill (moved to cornerback) and Micheaux Hollingsworth (non-qualifier/North Carolina A&T) in 2001; Coleman and Merriweather in 2002; Billie (moved to linebacker) and Nolen (probable redshirt) in 2003. UNC Hoping To Repeat History CHAPEL HILL — If North Carolina really is Tailback U., as the history books suggest, it's in the midst of a serious identity crisis. “We have not been able to run the ball consistently (in recent years),” UNC coach John Bunting said. “We're getting better. Our offensive line is playing better (this fall), and our backs are having some good moments. We're getting better, and that's important, but we still have a long way to go.” UNC's tradition of strong rushing attacks and 1,000-yard tailbacks (24) began when Bunting played for the Tar Heels. (He was a linebacker from 1968-71.) Under Bill Dooley and later Dick Crum, the team had at least one back surpass 1,000 yards in all but two seasons from 1969-84. Bunting's old teammate, Don McCauley, started the trend with back-to-back campaigns of 1,092 yards in 1969 and a then-record 1,720 yards (since surpassed only by UVa's Thomas Jones) in 1970. “I enjoy seeing Don McCauley (who recently took a job in UNC's business school). I just saw him again the other day,” Bunting said. “Unfortunately, he's in his 50s now, and he doesn't have any eligibility left.” Less than a decade ago, under Mack Brown, UNC temporarily rediscovered its ground game. Natrone Means went over 1,000 yards in 1991 and '92. The following fall, Leon Johnson and Curtis Johnson both broke the barrier. In the nine seasons since, however, only Jonathan Linton made the list, with 1,004 yards in 1997. That same year, the Tar Heels signed four high-profile tailbacks on the recruiting trail, but instead of a much-needed injection of talent at the position, UNC apparently ended up with a hard-to-shake curse. In a group that became the poster children for those who mock recruiting rankings, prep All-Americans Ravon Anderson, Rufus Brown and Domonique Williams became busts. (Brown actually was OK when healthy.) A fourth hyped signee, Tyrell Godwin, ultimately focused on baseball. Here are the anemic rushing totals for UNC's single-season leaders from 1998-2002: Brown with 534, prep All-American Daniel Davis with 303 as a true freshman in 1999, Brandon Russell with 508 as a true freshman in 2000, prep All-American Andre' Williams with 520 and finally prep All-American Jacque Lewis with 574 last fall. Just in case those numbers aren't ugly enough on their own, consider this additional evidence of a position jinx: Brown later encountered numerous injury problems, moved to fullback and gave up football. Davis, while incredibly talented, was dismissed from the team by then-coach Carl Torbush after a ridiculous series of academic, disciplinary and legal problems. (After one successful season in junior college, Davis transferred to Kansas State, where he was moved to receiver and recently encountered another round of legal woes. A senior, he hasn't played yet this fall.) Russell moved to receiver, where he immediately missed time with a sprained knee and broken wrist; he's a second-team wideout this season. Williams gave up football over the summer, getting a medical waiver for chronic back pain, and is serving as a student coach. Lewis, while still at tailback, has bounced back and forth between the third and fourth string in 2003. Bunting and running backs coach Andre' Powell can look at their 2003 tailbacks with either a half-full or half-empty perspective. All four players in the rotation have obvious strengths, but each falls far short of the total package. Even behind an improved offensive line, the best any of the tailbacks could offer through two games was 71 total rushing yards. Quarterback Darian Durant led the team with 90 yards on the ground. “Not good enough,” Bunting said. “We need to get better there, and I think we have the people to do it.” Fifth-year senior Willie Parker and true freshman Ronnie McGill, the Heels' biggest runners, got almost all of the carries from the tailback spot against Florida State and Syracuse. Parker, a fitness freak whose performance hasn't always matched his physique, bulked up to 207 pounds during the offseason and showed a newfound willingness to run between the tackles. McGill, who enrolled in January so he could participate in spring practice, is listed at 205 pounds, has the frame to add 15 more and seems to enjoy contact. “There have been times when Willie got us excited in the spring and then didn't do what we needed during the season,” Powell said. “He knows this is his last chance, and he's committed to following through this time. I think he will.” “Ronnie McGill has shown that he can be a starting running back for us,” Bunting said. “I'm excited about his future.” Chad Scott, a Kentucky transfer eligible for the first time this fall, has better acceleration and pass-catching ability than anyone in the backfield but also has missed some time with minor injuries. A third-team freshman All-American with the Wildcats in 2000, he had an injury-plagued campaign in 2001, then sat out 2002 in Chapel Hill. Lewis, a staff favorite because of his attitude and work ethic, is considered the best blocker among the tailbacks and one of the Heels' smartest and toughest players. He runs into trouble at times because, while elusive, he sometimes dances around too much and ends up getting gang-tackled in a manner his smaller frame can't absorb. Also a strong special-teams player, he's struggled with minor injuries but can be effective in a complementary role. Recent tailback signees: Davis (dismissed/
Kansas State) and Parker in 1999; Jason Crawford (non-qualifier), Russell (moved to receiver) and Williams (medical/back) in 2000; Lewis in 2001; Mahlon Carey (moved to safety), Rikki Cook (moved to fullback), Scott and D.J. Walker (moved to safety) in 2002; McGill in 2003. Hokies: Jones Enjoying Attention BLACKSBURG — For the first time in his career, junior Kevin Jones is discovering what it requires to be “the man” at tailback for the Hokies. Sometimes, it takes thick skin above all else. Jones is an incredibly gifted tailback. No one has ever disputed that. With nearly 20 additional pounds on his already ripped frame this season, he's looking even more the part of the featured tailback, especially now that Lee Suggs has moved on to the NFL. However, with pumped-up physical attributes come pumped-up expectations. Jones learned all about lofty expectations early on this season. On the whole, Virginia Tech fans wouldn't trade Jones in for any back in the nation, but that doesn't mean they don't look for perfection. Even coach Frank Beamer tossed a little criticism in Jones' direction in the early going for “dancing around” in the backfield more than usual. It's no big deal to Jones, a nails-tough Philadelphia area product who was one of the most highly recruited and widely acclaimed Tech signees in history. “If I get the ball in my hands, I'm not thinking about anything like that,” Jones said. “I'm just thinking about running and getting yards. I mean, if I do a spin move in the backfield and only get three yards, people are all over me. But if I do a spin move and pick up a bunch of yards, everybody's happy. That's why when people are just talking, I use that as motivation to fuel my fire and go attack it the next time.” If Jones remains healthy, he's destined to post rushing numbers that will surpass those (957, 871) of the last two seasons. He's starting every game for the first time in his career, and that means more opportunities on a more consistent basis. After a 30-carry, 188-yard, three-touchdown nationally televised performance in the Hokies' 35-19 victory over Texas A&M, Jones had 64 rushing attempts for 328 yards and five TDs through three games and again was being called a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy. Nevertheless, Beamer doesn't plan on sticking the ball in Jones' gut 30-40 times in every game. Jones is a weapon, but Beamer wants to keep him fresh. “I think the best thing for us to help Kevin Jones is to be able to throw the football,” Beamer said. “I wouldn't want to get into where we couldn't throw the football for one reason or another.” While Jones is on the verge of taking the next step in his collegiate career, so is sophomore Cedric Humes. Prior to the season, Humes was in a tussle with sophomore Mike Imoh for the lead backup role. After ripping off a career-high 75 yards and three scores in three quarters in Tech's 43-0 win against James Madison, Humes made sure there were no questions concerning the Hokies' No. 2 option. He got the chance against JMU after Jones departed early in the second quarter with sprained ligaments in both wrists, after being shoved into a cement wall at Lane Stadium by JMU defensive end Demetrius Shambley. Imoh also is getting his share of time on the field. He provides a solid third tailback option with his quickness and decent speed. He's also sharing duties on kickoff returns with Humes. Yes, there's young talent in Blacksburg, but it's Jones' world. While Humes has shown promise, the Hokies' ground game would be in serious trouble this season without Jones running the show. Recent tailback signees: none in 1999; none in 2000; Justin Hamilton (moved to receiver), Humes and Jones in 2001; Imoh in 2002; Kenny Lewis (pro baseball) in 2003.