Bloomington – Indiana is making a commitment to running the football this season.
The addition of the ‘Pistol' formation to the arsenal provides one piece of evidence of that, a University of Nevada-designed attack that gets running backs running downhill much better than the traditional shotgun. A second piece of proof is Bill Lynch's insistence that he'll utilize one and two-tight end sets much more often than in recent years.
All of this is designed to help an Indiana ground game that hasn't had a running back rush for 700 yards since 2005 (Chris Taylor) and 1,000 yards since 2001 (Levron Williams).
But for all of the talk of formation and schematic changes, who is going to be the one running ball?
There are no shortage of options. Back from a year ago are seniors Bryan Payton (79 carries, 339 yards, 2 TDs) and Demetrius McCray (59 carries, 214 yards, 2 TDs), both of whom who have been part of a running back rotation for the past several years. Payton is a hard-charging veteran who has been the best IU has had to offer in recent years running between the tackles, while McCray is a more elusive back who can make a defender miss in the open field.
There's also fleet-footed sophomore Zach Walker-Davis (23 carries, 106 yards, 1 TD) as well as sophomore Trea Burgess (17 carries, 54 yards), a player who was moved to linebacker and then back to running back last spring.
And then there's redshirt freshman Darius Willis.
While there's great value in the experience that the four returnees provide, there's great excitement among many about the multitude of skills that the 6'0", 219-pound Willis possesses. The crown jewel of Indiana's 2008 recruiting class, the redshirt freshman appears to have the combination of strength, power and speed that Indiana hasn't had in some time. He showed off those skills during the Cream and Crimson game in April when he rushed for 80 yards on 13 carries, including a 17-yard touchdown run where he broke a tackle and then bounced outside and out-raced the IU secondary to the end zone.
If there's a knock on Willis it's that he was a little injury-prone last season. Any chance of playing as a true freshman were dashed last fall due to shoulder and back ailments in fall camp that kept him on the sidelines. He then missed about a week this spring with a groin injury, but was healthy enough by the spring game to showcase his skills.
With those injuries seemingly behind him, there are now many that believe Willis has a chance to be the sort of reliable running back option that IU hasn't had since the Bill Mallory days.
That may eventually happen, but odds are that the season will at least start with a running back-by-committee approach. Payton and McCray were the top two running backs on the IU depth chart during spring practice, and they figure to get a chance once the season opens Sept. 3.
How long IU sticks with a rotation at running back likely depends on how productive that approach is during the first month of the season. While some might be frustrated at the thought of Willis only getting 8-10 carries/game early on, one of the things he'll need to prove is that he's durable enough to handle 20 carries/game. Last season's series of nagging injuries has called that into question, and a tailback rotation could be the best way to find out if he's able handle a heavier workload.
IU Position Preview: Running Back
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