TAMPA — Three times in its first nine seasons, USF had a running back rush for more than 1,000 yards. The past two seasons? Not even close.
One go-to touchdown receiver? The Bulls haven't had a player catch more than four in a season since 2003, when they had just joined Conference USA.
But coming off a season in which they piled up a school-record 414 yards per game, these Bulls are happy to share the wealth, leaving defenses to wonder which weapons they need to contain.
"I don't ever want to be one-dimensional and especially not one-person dimensional," offensive coordinator Greg Gregory said as he prepared for tonight's season opener against Tennessee-Martin.
"If you're playing us, you can't say, 'We have to take away Taurus Johnson or Carlton Mitchell or Marcus Edwards.' The defense can't do that because they don't know where the ball is going."
Fans aren't sure either, clamoring for more of sophomore Mike Ford, who rushed for 337 yards and six scores in a three-game span in November. USF's coaches continue to tout their depth at the position, led by dependable senior Ben Williams, a 5-foot-7 former walk-on who is adept at picking up blitzes and catching passes.
"We've got some solid running backs. They all work hard," coach Jim Leavitt said this week. "We have about six running backs we think can get in there and do some things. We've kind of focused on four of them the most, given them the most reps. We're going to run our offense. If we hand off, we hand off. If we don't, we don't."
By that, he means quarterback Matt Grothe remains the focal point of the offense, having not only passed for 5,246 yards in two seasons, but led the Bulls in rushing — and carries — both seasons. He averaged more than 15 carries a game last season, and even with all of those backs, his load isn't likely to lighten much.
"I don't think it's bad," Gregory said. "When we run the quarterback, it allows us to be a 12-man football team. To me, it's idiotic as a coach to not run the quarterback when he averages 6 yards a carry when you call his number. For me to not run him would be one of the dumbest things I could do offensively."
The Bulls' deepest position might be receiver, where three players — Mitchell, Johnson and Jessie Hester — had at least 30 catches and 400 yards last season but are barely holding onto their starting positions. Sophomores A.J. Love and Dontavia Bogan, who combined for 20 catches last season, are poised for breakout seasons as is freshman Daniel Bryant.
"We don't pick out a receiver and try to feed him the football," Gregory said. "We don't pick out a back and try to feed him the ball. One game, Carlton is the guy who might catch six. The next game, it might be (Johnson). There are guys we want to get touches, but we're not going to force-feed it."
Williams and Ford aren't the only options at running back as sophomore Jamar Taylor typifies the unknown aspect of USF's offense. He had 15 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown in last year's win against West Virginia, then totaled 56 yards in the remaining nine games. Sophomore Richard Kelly, the biggest of the backs at 238 pounds, also has worked with the first team despite getting only one carry last season.
"We're going to play a lot of running backs," running backs coach Carl Franks said. "It's hard to make it through a year without somebody getting nicked up, so we need to have three or four guys ready to play.
"Starting, I know, is an honor for somebody. And the depth chart is some level of pride for where you are. I'm still looking for guys we can trust in a game. Who can we put out there in any situation and trust they'll perform for us? It's a fluid situation as we go into the season."