With just one football to go around and four talented and capable running backs on the roster, it seemingly defies logic that everyone in Bobby Petrino's backfield stable will remain happy throughout the Cardinals 2004 schedule.
Or does it? For his part, Petrino thinks the quality depth in the Cardinals backfield not only is a team strength but further believes each of his four talented backs, senior Lionel Gates, junior Eric Shelton and sophomores Michael Bush and Kolby Smith are more than prepared to handle the crowded situation.
"I think one of the strengths of our team is our depth at running back," Petrino said. "We're trying to make them understand that to reach the goals that we have they have to be healthy. If you carry the ball too much in college, you're likely to be not as healthy because the running backs have all the collisions and take the most punishment week in and week out."
Petrino used last season's platoon system as an example of how the situation might work out for his team in 2004.
"Earlier in the season last year, Eric Shelton was our main guy," Petrino explained. "He had a great game against Kentucky and Syracuse then he got dinged up a little bit. Then, Lionel came in and took over for a couple games and was the main featured back. And then late in the year, Michael Bush was the featured back."
"The whole time, Kolby Smith was playing full back because he was the toughest," Petrino continued. "This year, we're going to give Kolby more of an opportunity to touch the ball and give the other guys a little more experience at blocking."
Complicating the situation this fall has been the emerence of the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Smith, a fast and shifty runner. Perhaps the most well-rounded and talented of the bunch, Smith saw limited carries last season, though he averaged 7.8 yards each time he touch the ball. However, the Tallahassee native will almost surely see more time at tailback this season, primarily because of his speed, ability to catch the ball and make big plays out of the backfield.
"They're all team players and I really believe that," Petrino said. "When you come out to practice you'll see how hard they work, how much they push each other and how willing they are to switch positions."
"Not only are they working hard but they're working on blocking for each other," Petrino continued. "Right now we've got Michael [Bush] and Kolby [Smith] working together, and Lionel [Gates] and Eric [Shelton] working together trading off at the tailback and fullback spot. So they're all running at those positions and they're very cooperative of doing that."
Petrino has downplayed any possible controversy between his running backs since spring practice and admits his offense needs the talents and ability of each player for the offense to reach its full potential this season.
"We're going to need all four of them, there's no doubt about it," Petrino said. "When one gets hots, we'll give him the ball. If one gets dinged up and isn't at full speed, we'll bring another guy in.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing how it all plays out and how well they do throughout the entire season."