Position breakdown: Running backs
More than any other position, USF's running backs defy the standard headings I use for these position breakdowns: The Starter, Next In Line, and The Rest. The two primary backs from last season return in senior Ben Williams and sophomore Mike Ford, but sophomores Jamar Taylor and Richard Kelly are trying to shoehorn in for carries as well. How will the workload be divvied up in 2008? There's no telling, and little help from looking at 2007 ...
THE STARTER: The statistics don't point to it, but the answer, at least initially, is Williams, the 5-foot-7, 200-pound former walk-on who has earned and kept the trust of USF's coaches. I don't know of a single player at any position who consistently draws the same unmitigated praise from coaches -- they love his work ethic, they love his team attitude and the way he can do a little of everything well. He runs, he picks up blitzes, he catches passes out of the backfield. His big game last year was a 25-carry, 186-yard, four-touchdown game at Florida Atlantic, though he took a considerably smaller role in the remaining eight games. In those games, he totaled 115 rushing yards on 48 carries, and actually managed more yards on catches out of the backfield (160) in those games. Will USF operate out of a two-back set more, allowing Williams to complement a bigger back such as Ford or Taylor?
THE NEXT IN LINE: The use of Mike Ford has been a topic of debate since his big debut last season, when he rushed for two scores and caught a third against Elon. His size -- 6-foot-2 and as much as 233 pounds -- makes him a durable, franchise-type back, but his relative inexperience leaves question marks in terms of his ability to pick up blitzes and avoid fumbles. In last year's late-season resurgence, when USF bounced back after losing three straight games, the Bulls relied heavily on Ford, getting two touchdowns in each of three wins against Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh. He combined for 337 yards in those three games, which made fans wonder why he'd totaled 18 rushes for 49 yards in the three previous losses. Jim Leavitt has since attributed Ford's reduced role to badly injured ribs -- had he been healthy in the Connecticut game, USF might have gotten more than 10 points out of five trips inside the Huskies' 10-yard line, especially three fourth-quarter misses from the 1-yard line.
Then again, Ford was a non-factor in the Sun Bowl loss to Oregon, getting just six carries for 8 yards in a game where USF trailed by just four points at halftime. Coaches have reminded fans that Ford was just a true freshman last season, coming off essentially a two-year layoff from football, that he scored 13 touchdowns and rushed for more yards than West Virginia phenom Noel Devine did. Ford has benefitted from another off-season to learn the Bulls' offense, so perhaps that familiarity will help him.
The question remains: Is Ford the 20-carry workhorse who helped carry the Bulls in November, or the back who, for whatever reason, coaches shied away from using in other games, before and after? Consider the allocation of carries in Big East games, arguably the most important for the Bulls: Williams had 40 carries for 111 yards, while Ford, even while limited by his ribs, had 91 carries for 446 yards and seven touchdowns.
THE REST: The Bulls have two intriguing options in Taylor and Kelly, who were arguably underutilized as true freshmen. Taylor was the primary ballcarrier in USF's huge win against West Virginia, getting 15 carries for 58 yards and a score (Williams had two carries for 7 yards and Ford five for 42 in the same game). Again, Taylor barely saw action again, perhaps exiled for fumbling: take away a 54-yard run on the first play against Connecticut, and Taylor totaled 10 yards -- TEN YARDS! -- in the remaining nine games. Kelly, who has since slimmed from 255 pounds to a trim 238, had just one carry as a freshman, getting some work at tight end before returning full-time to the backfield in spring. Could one of those two be a sleeper in the running back derby? It's unlikely there will be relevant contributions from the rest of the backs -- Moise Plancher, who looks to be fully recovered from a knee injury, showed up as the No. 6 back on the preseason depth chart; Demetris Murray, while talented, is headed for a redshirt; walk-ons Mike Padilla, Shawn Cannon and Joel Miller will likely only see action in mop-up roles, and Aston Samuels is expected to miss the season after breaking his shoulder socket this spring. His future, given his breakaway speed, might be as a slot receiver.