If Mack is out, USF's Tice and Johnson can carry load

Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson bring different facets to the Bulls’ backfield but recorded nearly identical statistics last week against Towson: Johnson ran six times for 33 yards; Tice six for 32.
Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson bring different facets to the Bulls’ backfield but recorded nearly identical statistics last week against Towson: Johnson ran six times for 33 yards; Tice six for 32.
Published Sept. 10, 2016

TAMPA — Arguably no nickname in USF's locker room comes off as fitting as the one junior Marlon Mack, junior D'Ernest Johnson and senior Darius Tice have given themselves.

Three-headed monster.

The label conjures images of sideshows nudged in the dark corners of county fairs. Abnormalities. Deviations from the norm.

To be sure two-thirds of this running back triumvirate, Johnson and Tice, ooze aberration. You don't see guys like them anymore.

"I think the average fan really don't respect them as much as Marlon Mack just because the name he's got for himself," senior left tackle Kofi Amichia said.

Since Mack debuted by running for 275 yards against Western Carolina in the 2014 season opener, the other two have been rendered supporting players. Only one guy can be the bell cow, and that's Mack, whose 2,480 career rushing yards are more than double Johnson and Tice's combined total (1,217).

So the duo contributes whenever and wherever the need arises, in spurts marked by velocity and versatility. That need could spike this evening.

"I know Marlon's the headliner and all those things," Bulls first-year offensive line coach Darren Hiller said. "But D'Ernest and Darius … this is Year 22 (of coaching) for me, and those two guys can play for a lot of people in the country at running back."

Yet here they remain, nestled between Fletcher and Fowler avenues, continuing to toil on the greenest pasture they've ever sought. The transfer rate among Division I football players never has seemed higher. Strangely, neither has the combined morale of Johnson and Tice, who have three combined career starts.

"We're all pushing each other and making each other better," Johnson said. "I just stayed here because I love the school and love the coaches. I just love all my teammates here."

Aberration, indeed.

Tonight against Northern Illinois, the pair's perseverance might be rewarded. Or to look at it another way, the Bulls might be rewarded with the pair's perseverance. Mack went through a concussion protocol this week and has practiced in a noncontact jersey.

If he doesn't play, the Bulls don't believe they'll miss a step.

"I think it speaks to what we've been saying all year long, that we have a lot more depth than what we've had before," coach Willie Taggart said.

"Marlon Mack is a great running back, but you've got to remember his backups make him the great running back that he is," free safety Devin Abraham added. "D'Ernest Johnson, Darius Tice, they're both really well-rounded backs. They can play ball. They can run the ball just like Marlon."

Well, maybe not just like him. The styles and skill sets differ to a degree.

Johnson (5 feet 10, 208 pounds) is the most versatile of the group, and arguably the backfield's best pass-catching option. The three-way standout at Immokalee High has scored touchdowns running, passing and receiving for USF; last week he returned punts and covered kickoffs.

Tice (5-10, 211) frequently materializes in goal-line and short-yardage situations but possesses the burst to pop a long one. In last week's 56-20 rout of Towson, the Miami Northwestern alumnus took a pass in the backfield — some insist it was a backward lateral — from Quinton Flowers and raced for a 43-yard touchdown.

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"Darius Tice, he can run you over and shake you off the field," Amichia said.

"When I see him get open field in the second level, I already know we're about to hit for about 30 yards. And D'Ernest, you can see with all of his preseason awards (Paul Hornung Award watch list), he's a pretty all-around guy. So when he's out there, you can do whatever."

Call it a luxury of options, borne of loyalty. Tice, a Class 6A second-team all-state pick as a Northwestern senior, said the only recruiting promise Taggart ever made to him was that "if you go out and work hard, then everything comes to you."

After totaling 245 rushing yards and no touchdowns his first two seasons, he ran for 460 and four touchdowns in 2015.

"I had some unfortunate situations when I first came; I got nicked up, I got hurt and stuff, things you can't control," Tice said. "But for the most part, Coach T and the coaching staff have been 100 percent real for me. … I'm a loyal guy, and I stay loyal to those guys."

As a result, the only backfield transfer they're discussing these days involves workload. From Mack to Tice and Johnson.

"If Marlon plays we're gonna be excited," Taggart said. "If Marlon doesn't play we're gonna be excited and go out there and play our tails off."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.