Bloomington, Ind. – IU running backs coach Gerald Brown believes he's found a couple of guys he can turn to as the Hoosiers' primary ball-carrier this season.
He's not ready to anoint anyone as the starter just yet, but he knows that day is rapidly approaching.
"That's the hard part, when you got a group that works hard like this group, to settle on one guy and the others have to sit back," Brown said. "But that's part of the deal."
After losing last season's top two rushers, Chris Taylor and Yamar Washington, to graduation, Brown has turned to a young but talented group of ball carriers this fall. Headlining the list is 5-8, 182-pound sophomore Marcus Thigpen and 5-11, 189-pound redshirt freshman Demetrius McCray, a pair with differing styles.
A starting wide receiver a year ago, Thigpen was moved to tailback in the spring and has track-caliber speed.
"Marcus gives us speed," Brown said. "He's a breakaway threat every time he touches the ball. He seems to be getting comfortable in the backfield. I didn't think he was there in the spring, but he's really coming on right now. He's about ready to go."
McCray, meanwhile, has speed, but it's his elusiveness that is his best asset. A top IU recruiting get in the '05 class, McCray missed a week of fall camp while remedying an academic issue, but he returned to practice Monday afternoon and is battling for the starting job.
"He missed some work, but I think he's going to be a good back for us this year," Brown said. "He's a difference maker, he makes people miss, has deceiving speed, and has some toughness about him."
While McCray and Thigpen have received the majority of the snaps with the No. 1 offense this fall, a couple of other tailbacks have also shown plenty of promise. Redshirt freshman Bryan Payton has impressed with his hard-nosed style. "You know what you're going to get from Bryan Payton on every snap – he's going to give you everything he's got," Brown said.
The fourth tailback who appears in the mix is junior Josiah Sears, a converted fullback who brings a different style altogether – along with a bit of experience.
"Josiah, he's my coach on the field," Brown said. "He's a role player, and he understands that. The style of offense we run suits those smaller, quicker guys.
"Josiah might not cover as much ground as quickly as those other guys, but he's a very capable runner, and he's a very strong pass defender. So hopefully he'll have a role."
Tailback has been one of the most competitive positions during fall camp, and a clear cut No. 1 has yet to emerge. Thigpen might have a slight lead in the race due to McCray's one-week absence, but it's far from a foregone conclusion that he'll be lined up behind quarterback Blake Powers when IU takes the field Sept. 2 for its season opener against Western Michigan.
But don't expect the competition to end once a starter is named for next week's contest. Indiana used a pair of tailbacks last season, and multiple ball carriers could get a chance again this season.
"I think in the league we're playing in, it would be hard to say this is the guy, he's going to get every snap," Brown said. "I don't think the others will back down. They are going to continue to work hard, and it's a long season. So all of them have to be ready, because you never know when your number is going to be called."
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