Friday, February 23, 2018
Colleges

USF ground game on firm footing thanks to D'Ernest Johnson, Darius Tice

TAMPA — Even as coaches and peers rave about USF senior Darius Tice's motor, his roommate on road trips wouldn't mind it idling every now and again.

Be it at midfield or midnight, Tice can get revved up.

"Man, he does not stop talking," fellow tailback D'Ernest Johnson said. "I try to go to sleep on him sometimes, he'll talk me to death, man."

Somewhere in that nocturnal visual, irony lurks. Nine months after three-time 1,000-yard rusher Marlon Mack announced he was bypassing his senior year for the NFL, no one at USF — well, almost no one — is losing sleep over the Bulls' run game.

The Johnson-Tice rotation has been that effective.

"You're seeing two guys that are competing there, because if you watch one get a big run, it's like the next time the next guy comes in, he wants to get a big run," coach Charlie Strong said. "They're running through defenders, they're punishing defenders, which you like to see with a running back."

In the past two games, Tice (from Miami) and Johnson (from Immokalee) both have run for at least 100 yards. In the season opener at San Jose State, both eclipsed 90.

Entering Saturday's game at East Carolina (1-3, 1-0 AAC), Tice ranks fourth in the conference with 93.2 rushing yards per game. Johnson is seventh at 80.2.

"They had (departures) at running back, which you really can't tell with Johnson and Tice," East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery said.

They're equally tough to distinguish without jersey numbers. Both are listed at 5 feet 10, are essentially the same size (Johnson's listed at 210, Tice at 205), and possess a north-south running style.

Through four games for USF (4-0, 1-0), Johnson, the more versatile of the two (66 career catches, 3,364 career all-purpose yards) has started and worked the first two possessions. Tice follows for one or two possessions before Johnson is re-inserted.

The rotation fluctuates mildly from there, but their respective workloads — and numbers — are strikingly similar. Tice has 373 yards and six touchdowns on 63 carries. Johnson has 321 yards and two touchdowns on 76 attempts.

"I'd say D'Ernest is a guy that can do everything, that's why we call him 'Junkyard Dog,' " quarterback Quinton Flowers said.

"He can catch if you want him to catch. He can throw if you want him to throw. He can run, he can make good cuts. I'd say Darius Tice, he's a guy that goes downhill. He's gonna punish you, he's gonna hurt you."

Yet success with such an approach requires more than sturdy frames or complementary styles. Myriad factors — not the least of which are mild egos — have converged to make this rotation formidable.

Credit offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and running backs coach Shaun King with devising a rotation that appears to keep both players fresh without keeping them off-rhythm. Credit the offensive line, which seems to have congealed after a shaky start.

And credit the willingness of Johnson and Tice to give this two-headed system a fair shake. Then again, any questions about the ego of either were put to rest long ago, when both stayed the course — instead of transferring — after Mack established himself as the Bulls' bell cow back.

Not once, Strong said, has one grumbled when replaced.

"The thing about those two guys, they have such a great relationship with one another," Strong said. "It's not like when a guy comes in (the other says), 'Hey, stay out,' or one of those things. Usually you see that."

Back to the roommate thing. Tice acknowledges he's talkative but only to "hype up" Johnson for the upcoming game. Not that Johnson is without his quirks.

"He watches football all day. He'll find football (on TV)," Tice said. "I'll be like, 'Man, you can put on Martin, you can put on TNT, let's watch a movie.' One thing about him, he's gonna find a way to watch football — all day."

At least they've learned to co-exist where it matters.

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

   
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