Shoop, Part IV: Rushing Forward

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- John Shoop, North Carolina's offensive coordinator, is definitely a glass-half-full kind of coach. His analysis of North Carolina's running back position illustrates his ability to always spot the silver lining in every cloud.

Gone are three senior running backs, all of whom were talented and experienced enough to have been virtually interchangeable last season at tailback: Johnny White, Anthony Elzy, and Shaun Draughn.

Each had his strengths and weaknesses, but all three performed when called on in UNC's offense. What's Shoop's take on missing those players in 2011?

"We lost about 2,400 yards of offense in those three guys," Shoop said, then barely pausing, "Having said that, we've got Rhino (Ryan Houston) coming back, which we're real excited about. He's a big durable body that will do great behind this offensive line.

"I'm really excited to see guys like Gio (Bernard) and Hunter (Furr) really get an opportunity to carry the ball more. They've got some rare speed and quickness. That, behind this offensive line, if we can spring them, eight yards might turn into 68. They've got that in them."

The Tar Heels are also fortunate in having one of their new running backs enrolled for the spring semester and able to participate in spring practice.

"I'm really excited to see this true freshman, Travis Riley, that's come in as well," Shoop said.

Perhaps because of a number of factors such as injuries, or holding out players against weaker competition, the days of a primary feature back carrying the load for a college team are dwindling. In 2007 there were 27 college players that averaged over 20 carries per game – in 2010 there were only 16 players that had 20 carries or more on average. It is cyclical, no doubt, but overall the trend seems to be towards using multiple players at tailback, specialized in terms of short-yardage or third-down backs – maybe even use two or even three backs in rotation.

The Tar Heels, mostly from necessity, have used the "running back by committee" approach in recent years, though that isn't Shoop's preference.

"I would prefer to hand the ball to one guy 20 or 25 times a game," Shoop said. "We were doing that with Johnny (White) a little bit before he got injured. I think he was well on his way to a 1,000-yard season. I'd like to see one guy really assume that spot."

Shoop has undoubtedly employed Houston as a short-yardage specialist and touchdown vulture around the goal line, so he bends to necessity and the personnel he has at his disposal, but prefers a primary feature back.

"No matter what, you're always going to have to play more than one, but for the bulk of it, we're looking for one of those guys to ascend; they'll make that decision, not me," Shoop said. "Coach Browning has a real good eye for it and does a great job in his meeting room as well – stimulating and motivating those guys. Our job is not to keep everyone happy, but we do want to give everyone the opportunity to do their absolute best."

Does that mean Shoop is open to Houston becoming that primary back, or does he have his eyes elsewhere?

"I never make promises in how many catches or carries guys get," Shoop said. "I don't think coaches make those decisions; I think players do."

Speaking of which, lots of Tar Heel fans were curious as to why Hunter Furr didn't get more carries after an impressive series against Florida State in Tallahassee last season that put the Tar Heels into position for the winning field goal.

"That's my fault. I blame myself, I really do," Shoop said. "Every week he practiced well after that week and we had play for him. Truthfully, it's a reflection that Elzy or Shaun was doing a really good job. Coach Browning has a great feel on the sideline if guys are gassed and substitutions like that. It's in Hunter; we see it. Guys like Hunter, they're going to have an opportunity to really step into the forefront and this program is counting on them. I really believe they are up for the challenge."

The Tar Heel program received some great news that fullback Devon Ramsey would be eligible to play in 2011 and Shoop is excited about the competition at that spot.

"I called his mom right away," Shoop said. "I was so happy. He's a big body and he's a big durable guy. But, having said that, what a job Curtis Byrd did starting nine games as a walk-on. We didn't miss a beat; it's not like we did things different. It's just, Byrd was the man doing it. I think there's going to be great competition at that spot. Curtis isn't just giving the job away now."

You wouldn't expect Shoop to be so enthusiastic after losing three seniors at running back, but it's not hard to understand it.

"Gio is built so low to the ground and maybe has a little bit more of lateral quickness than Hunter has, but Hunter has that high knee kick like a slasher. I think they are both really gifted. When you couple that with Ryan's demeanor, and Travis Riley isn't a small guy either. I really like our running back situation.

"We've lost a lot of production. We can dwell on the past, but I'm excited with what these guys might bring to the table. We're going to push every button we can to get that production out of these guys."

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