Bloomington – IU assistant coach Dennis Springer went into Saturday’s scrimmage with the hopes of answering some questions about how he could best use his stable of running backs this season.
So, with the scrimmage long-since concluded and the tape long-since dissected, have any decisions been made about who will start next Thursday’s season opener and who will play?
“Not yet,” Spring said. “They’re making it hard. And that’s a good problem to have. We’re trying to give them every opportunity to separate themselves.”
Bryan Payton, Demetrius McCray, Darius Willis and Trea Burgess have been battling for the spot throughout fall camp, and there’s been very little to separate one from the other. All have had lengthy looks with the No. 1 and No. 2 units, and they’ve all remained relatively healthy during the last two and a half weeks.
They’ve all grown increasingly anxious as well to find out exactly who will be the first player to run out onto the field against Eastern Kentucky.
“I’m very anxious to find out what’s going to happen,” said Willis. “I think about it every day. But we’re all on the same team, and we’re going to go out there and make plays.”
One player who has been making plenty of plays this spring is McCray. A 5’11”, 200-pound senior with 672 career rushing yards to his credit, McCray has seemingly spent as much time in the training room as the football field during his college career. But that’s changed this fall, and as a result he’s making as strong a case as anyone for the starter’s job.
“One thing about Demetrius, it’s the first time he’s stayed healthy an entire camp,” IU Coach Bill Lynch said. “I don’t think he’s ever done that in camp or in a spring practice. So to be able to see him do it over and over and over again, I think has been good.”
Willis has also been impressive and relatively injury-free. The highly-celebrated 2008 recruit battled injuries last fall and again in the spring, but has largely been available throughout fall camp.
“He’s been a little better this year (as far as injuries), and part of it is his body continues to mature,” Springer said. “A lot of times you forget he’s an 18 or 19-year-old kid. But he combines a little bit of everything. He’s got power, he’s got speed, he’s got the size you look for in a Big Ten back.”
The least-known of the running back candidates – Burgess – shouldn’t be discounted as a possibility, either. At 231 pounds he’s the biggest of the bunch, and with more teams utilizing a short-yardage specialist these days, that’s a role Springer could see him potentially filling.
“He’s 235 pounds and he moves better than you think he does. He runs the ball with some attitude, so he can definitely fill a role for us,” Springer said.
Add in the hard-charging Payton, and Springer has four running backs to choose from and very little to separate them. He’ll continue to watch over the final days of camp to see if someone separates themselves from the pack, but it’s looking more and more like a running back rotation could be in store this fall.
“In the Big Ten, you need two or three running backs, not just one is going to carry it 30 times,” said Willis. “You won’t stay healthy that way. So a good rotation would be good for us.”
However IU opts to answer its running back conundrum, the ultimate mission is to run the ball a whole lot better than the team has in recent years. That’s particularly true in short-yardage situations, where Lynch wants a team that’s capable of lining up and getting the tough yards when it has to to move the chains.
“We have to run the ball better and we have to run the ball better in key situations,” Lynch said. “We don’t want to have to be a spread offense on 3rd and 1 anymore. We want to be able to line up, here we come, and move the pile a little bit.”