The battle for Indiana's running back job is off and running.
There are plenty of position battles that were waged this spring, but none was higher profile than the quintet of tailbacks who envision stepping in for departed seniors Chris Taylor and Yamar Washington. In sophomore Marcus Thigpen, junior Josiah Sears and redshirt freshmen Demetrius McCray, Justin Carrington and Bryan Payton, IU Coach Terry Hoeppner has five viable candidates.
"There are a lot of new faces," IU running backs coach Gerald Brown said. "They are a very talented group, and I think they all bring a little something different to the table."
A converted wide receiver, the 5-9, 182-pound Thigpen was a standout high school tailback at Detroit's Mumford H.S., rushing for nearly 1,500 yards as a prep senior. He entered spring practice as the No. 1 tailback, although by the end of the spring season he was running neck-and-neck with McCray, the 5-11, 189-pounder from Brandon, Fla., who was one of the most highly-coveted members of Indiana's 2005 recruiting class.
"McCray, he's just natural," Brown said. "The things he does, you can tell that's his position."
Thigpen's background as a wide receiver, meanwhile, has freed the Hoosiers up to experiment with some different formations during spring drills, including some looks with both McCray and Thigpen in the backfield together. According to Brown, that's a move designed to give opposing defenses even more to worry about.
"We feel like if the ball is in either of their hands, we have a chance to be successful," Brown said. "We run a spread attack, but we're doing some things formation-wise to get those guys on the field. We feel our perimeter game is good as far as our talent at wide receiver, so when we have those two guys in the backfield we have five guys on the field that people have to defend."
While Thigpen and McCray earned most of the work with the No. 1 offense during the spring, Payton, Carrington and Sears remain very much in the hunt for playing time. The 6-0, 204-pound Carrington and the 6-0, 238-pound Sears have been good around the goal line, while the 5-9, 208-pound Payton brings plenty of toughness to the table and did have the best effort in the spring game (9 carries, 51 yards).
"Bryan Payton is what we call a workhorse guy," Hoeppner said after the spring game. "A tremendous heart with a lot of ability to go with it."
Indiana might be without its two leading rushers from a season ago, but it's not the talent level that has Brown concerned in the least.
"It's a good group, but not much experience," Brown said. "So it makes me squirm a little bit. But to see where this group can go is exciting. They still have a lot to learn, but once they figure this thing out and get a little taste of the season next year, I think the future is going to be bright."
Biggest Surprise – All of the redshirt freshmen tailbacks showed the ability to be contributors. Often times log jams at certain positions clear themselves out quickly, but Carrington, Payton and McCray all showed signs they can be very good Big Ten running backs. Carrington is a very hard runner who could wind up being a red zone/goal line type of back if he doesn't earn the starting job. Payton combines speed and toughness, someone who elevated his stock with his spring game performance, and McCray did nothing to dissuade on-lookers from thinking he is the odds on favorite to win the starting job.
Biggest Disappointment – One area that remains a concern with the tailbacks is their ability to help in pass protection. Both Hoeppner and Brown said that's one of the toughest things for new tailbacks to pick up, and with the unproven offensive line in front of them, it becomes even more important that the tailbacks can help keep IU's quarterbacks on their feet. During the spring, that was definitely an area that was still a concern.
Spring MVP – McCray. IU fans have been waiting to see exactly what the former Florida high school player of the year can do in an IU uniform, and they will definitely get their chance this fall. McCray combines excellent speed with the sort of elusiveness that Indiana hasn't had in a tailback in some time. Time will tell if his size keeps him from being a 20-25 carry/game tailback, but he has big-play possibilities written all over him.
Post-Spring Analysis - Tailbacks
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