There are eight weeks left until the South Florida Bulls open their 2011 football season at Notre Dame, which gives us just enough time to present a complete USF Football Prospectus. Each Thursday, we'll review one segment of the team -- looking back at its history, studying how it performed in 2010, and talking about what to expect from it in 2011. We covered the quarterbacks last week. Today, we'll look at the USF running backs.
(NOTE: If you're a Bulls fan, you can probably skip down to the 2011 expectations right now, because the goal of this series is to introduce the team to fans who aren't familiar with USF football.)
USF'S RUNNING BACK HISTORY
The Bulls have always had some talent at this position, but rarely has there been one featured back who carried the load. The only two runners to reach 1,000 yards in a season in a USF uniform were Dyral McMillan (a Miami transfer) in 1999, and Andre Hall (a junior college transfer) in 2004 and 2005. There were a couple of years during the Marquel Blackwell era where the running back was a secondary option, but most other years the running duties were split up by committee -- sometimes logically, sometimes not.
A few of the backs through the years had special skills. Brian Fisher was a tiny jack-of-all-trades who had a single-wing package installed for him and even started a game at quarterback in 2003. Rafael Williams and LaFann Williams were both speedsters. Despite being only 5'7" (and that might have been a stretch), Ben "BBQ" Williams threw his body in front of blitzers like he was diving on a live grenade and may have been the best pass-catching back in school history. But there are quite a few names that seem interchangeable, like DeJuan Green, Vince Brewer, Jamar Taylor, Clenton Crossley, or Ricky Ponton.
Hall was by far the best running back in school history, and arguably USF's best offensive player ever. He's the career leader in rushing yards (2754) and rushing touchdowns (24) despite only playing two seasons for the Bulls. Ever since he left after the 2005 season, the team and the fans have been searching for the next Andre Hall.
It seemed like Mike Ford was poised to fill the void when he arrived for the 2007 season. The former five-star recruit landed at USF after being unable to qualify at Alabama, and ran for 13 touchdowns in his freshman year. But either he didn't fit the offense or the offense didn't fit him, because he never led the team in rushing and rarely was used in a way that would suit his skills. He also couldn't be relied on to pick up blitzes or catch passes, which limited his usefulness. And he also had a long list of off-the-field issues which ultimately led to him being kicked off the team shortly after Skip Holtz took over. (It was for the dreaded "violation of team rules," which is a code astute USF fans know well.)
USF RUNNING BACKS IN 2010
With Ford out of the picture, the running back duties were split between sixth-year senior Moise Plancher and sophomore Demetris Murray. Rather than being complements to each other, the two were for all intents and purposes the same player, right down to their abilities and running styles. They were both fairly quick and did very little dancing around before hitting the hole. That wasn't a surprise from Murray, but it was an unexpected plus from Plancher, who might have been excused for being a wee bit hesitant after missing two full seasons with knee injuries. Plancher and Murray combined for nearly 90% of the running back carries in 2010, and each averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Unlike many recent seasons, the two were able to grind out a decent amount of yards against tough defenses like Florida, Rutgers, and Miami.
Murray missed two games because of an injury, so Plancher ended up with more carries (176 to 120) and yards (793 to 542). Murray had a little bit more burst than Plancher and was somewhat better as a receiver, but other than that the two could have subbed for each other on every play and you wouldn't have noticed much of a difference.
The quarterback gets a fair number of carries in this offense, although not nearly as many as in the last few years of Jim Leavitt's tenure. For the first time since 2005, a QB did not lead the team in rushing yards. Subtracting sacks, B.J. Daniels ran the ball less than 100 times, mainly because Holtz and the coaches didn't want to expose him to major injury.
Marcus Shaw had some early-season cameos and ripped off a 63-yard touchdown run against Stony Brook before being sidelined by academic issues. Bradley Battles also made brief appearances, while fullback Richard Kelly finally saw near full-time use as a senior.
OUTLOOK FOR 2011
Along with the returning Murray, the Bulls welcome transfer Darrell Scott to the fold this season. Scott was the #1 running back recruit in the country in 2008, but had two disappointing years in Colorado before transferring to USF last year. After sitting out his transfer year, Scott hits the field as a junior and is expected to help share the load with Murray. Much like with Ford a few years ago, Scott's share of the playing time will likely depend on how quickly he picks up the details of the position, and if he can catch passes. Another transfer, Dontae Aycock from Auburn, also becomes eligible this year, but he's not on the current depth chart and may be relegated to spot duty along with Shaw and Battles. The only incoming freshman back is Willie Davis, who will almost certainly redshirt.
There appears to be more talent at running back than there was last year, and whether they're actually a better unit will be the key for the entire offense's production level. A lot depends on the less experienced offensive line, and on whoever the new fullback (currently converted linebacker Armando Sanchez) turns out to be. While Murray and Scott should be able to run through the holes that open in front of them, neither of them are the kind of runners who can turn nothing into something.
The Bulls need to run the football well to have a realistic chance of winning the Big East, because it won't happen if too much pressure is placed on B.J. Daniels to carry the offense. Will the potential turn into results? That could make the difference between USF playing in a brand-name bowl, or one named after chain sports bars or department stores for middle-aged women.