Position breakdown: Running backs
No position at USF is in better position for a major turnaround than running back, which could easily go from one of the Bulls' weakest areas to a strength. There are four freshmen who could make a real impact, and that doesn't include Moise Plancher, who's listed as a sophomore but will get last year back with a medical redshirt down the road.
I think the Elon game could look a lot like last year's opener against McNeese State, which saw four Bulls rush for more than 50 yards. Three of those were running backs, and over the rest of the season, there were only five instances where a Bulls back topped 50 yards in any game. As a team, USF averaged 4.0 yards per carry in only three games, all wins: McNeese, Connecticut and North Carolina, and after the McNeese game, the Bulls had no runs longer than 26 yards all year. Again, a lot has changed, so here are your 2007 running backs:
THE STARTER: Ben Williams is meant to be underestimated. He's a 5-foot-7 former walk-on who made the team out of an open tryout. All last year, the question was when he would lose the starting running back job; he still hasn't. You'd be hard-pressed to find a player who more consistently gets unmitigated praise from coaches for his work ethic. You just don't hear bad things about him. He's added 14 pounds to his frame since last season, bulking up to 200. The backs challenging him are immensely talented, but Williams will continue to get major carries because coaches trust him when he's in the game; it takes a while to earn that.
THE TIDE TURNERS: Mike Ford signed with Alabama in 2005; Jamar Taylor actually went there this spring. Both are Bulls freshmen, proof that some of the best recruits don't sign in February. Ford's numbers from his senior year at Sarasota High are staggering: 2,836 yards and 37 touchdowns, with a run of 11 straight games with at least 200 yards. Taylor, now playing in his third offense in less than a year, is a quick study who in Alabama's spring game led the Crimson team with 44 yards as a true freshman. Ford's size (6-2, 210) gives him a huge upside, but I've talked to people who think Taylor's all-around talents could make him a bigger impact player, especially if he can get in on returns. Williams led all USF backs with 436 yards last season; he and both of these guys could top that this season and it wouldn't surprise me.
THE SPEEDY OPTIONS: Plancher and redshirt freshman Aston Samuels are often overlooked in this mix, but they shouldn't be. Plancher was the starter a year ago and needs only to show coaches he's recovered from his knee surgery, as well as an ankle injury that surprised everyone Thursday. Samuels is a guy who turned down Ohio State, a fast runner who once piled up 394 yards and six touchdowns in a four-day span in back-to-back high school games.
THE FULLBACKS: There's a renewed push for actual fullbacks on the roster, starting with walk-ons Mike Padilla and Jason Fox, a converted center. Padilla, a high school teammate of Taurus Johnson and Nate Allen, is one of the first names you think of if Jim Leavitt starts giving walk-ons scholarships this fall. Fox was used as a blocking back last year on USF's "Victory" jumbo goal-line package, which basically puts a sixth and seventh lineman in the backfield. And true freshman Richard Kelly, a force at 245 pounds, is making a case to play this fall and will dress for the opener. I think you'll see the Bulls in a lot more two-back sets this fall, if only because the depth at running back seems far better than the depth at tight end.
THE REST: Carl Franks has an unprecedented 12 running backs to work with this fall, and the best we haven't mentioned is walk-on Shawn Cannon, who redshirted last season after transferring from a Kansas junior college. He could be this year's Walt Smith, capable enough to get carries and allow a true freshman to redshirt rather than use up a year with minimal game action. Tyson Butler is a talented true freshman from Fort Myers, but all indications are he'll use this fall to redshirt and add some much-needed bulk to his frame. He's listed at 170 pounds, which is 20 less than any other running back. The last two are walk-ons Marquise Pease and Rafael Bennett, who saw action in the spring game. Bennett didn't join the team until this week, but both are likely relegated to scout-team contributions.
There you have it. Thoughts on this deep and talented group? Offer up your pick on who will lead the Bulls in rushing -- there's a number of entirely valid answers right now, and we'll know a lot more after the Elon game, for sure. I'll check back in with the last position (QBs) early tomorrow, well, later today.