Staff Faces Tough Choices at Running Back

Bloomington - With the fall camp winding down this week, the time is coming where the IU staff is going to have to make some decisions about some starting positions. One of those spots is tailback, where a handful of players are vying for playing time...

Bloomington – Dennis Springer thinks he has good options to consider, but that's not going to make his decision any easier.

For all intents and purposes, IU's fall football camp will conclude early this week. The team will then turn its attention to preparing for season-opening foe Western Kentucky around the middle of the week, meaning some decisions need to be made about who's going to start and who are going to be the primary ball carriers Aug. 30.

Running back isn't the only position that remains undecided, but it's probably the spot where there are the most viable candidates for significant playing time.

Should Springer go with Marcus Thigpen, the fifth-year senior who combines track-caliber speed with the most experience of the bunch? Or should he instead turn to junior Demetrius McCray, a talented ball carrier who was splitting carries last season before his season was derailed by a foot injury? What about junior Bryan Payton, the hard-charging Ft. Wayne product whose north-south style has produced solid results as well.

As if those three veterans didn't provide enough to ponder, Springer has a couple of youngster to think about as well. Redshirt freshman Zach Davis-Walker has impressed this fall with his open field skills, and then there's true freshman Darius Willis, the marquee member of the '08 recruiting class who many think has the best combination of power and speed on the roster.

What's a coach to do? For the time being, Springer is happy to have so many worthwhile options to consider.

"You can never have enough," Springer said. "It's a good problem to have."

While the Hoosiers will likely rotate running backs as they have the last several seasons, there are still going to be a couple of the player who won't get much of a chance to contribute as they'd like. Springer said there's also a chance that depending on the gameplan, someone could wind up being the primary ball carrier in a given week while the others have to watch from the sidelines.

In his first season as an IU assistant, Springer has been a new set of eyes on the Hoosiers' stable of running backs, and he says there's a lot to like about all of the candidates.

"Marcus came here as a wide receiver, so he can do some things in our no back formations and run some routes," Springer said. "Demetrius is a well rounded player as well, he has good hands and can catch the ball. Bryan Payton is a power runner. He does a nice job between the tackles, and breaks tackles. Even Zach Walker is a shifty back who can make people miss in the open field and do a good job."

Based on who's been getting the majority of the work with the No. 1s, Thigpen and McCray have been the first two on the field during most of the 11-on-11 sessions. Thigpen is coming off a career-high 568 yards last season, capped by his 140-yard effort against Purdue. McCray, meanwhile, averaged 6.3 yards/carry in the first three games of the '07 campaign before a foot injury kept him off the field for the rest of the year.

"The last couple of days, it looks like (McCray's) starting to get a feel for it again," Springer said. "He's seeing some holes and hitting some runs that he wasn't doing early in camp. So he's coming along. He's getting back into playing shape. He's getting used to making cuts and pounding on that foot, so he's doing good."

Willis is the highly-touted freshman that many expected to emerge as a primary ball carrier this fall. Springer says there's a lot to like about the Indianapolis product, and that's he's been impressed with his skills, his maturity and his ability to pick up the offense.

At the same time, with so many veteran running backs still in the fold, redshirting Willis appears to be a very real possibility based on the fact that most of his time this fall has been spent with the No. 3 offense.

"If I had my way, you'd like to give people a chance to get used to the system, give him a chance to get used to being a college student," Springer said. "But as coaches, we're going to put the best out there, and if (Willis) gives us a chance to win we'll put him out there if he's physically and mentally ready."

It all makes for a lot of choices, and one tough decision.

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