UNC FB 2002: The running game

Three tail backs are vying for the starter's spot. Have any of them emerged as the clear leader for the job?

The North Carolina Tar Heels have several goals next season, but perhaps none is more important – at least offensively – than improving the running game. 


"We averaged THREE yards a carry last year," yells running back coach Andre Powell at his charges as they go through their paces.  "Next year, I want at least FIVE!" 


Fair enough, Coach.  The Tar Heels ranked sixth in the ACC in rushing offense last year, and their yards per carry average was less than two-tenths of a yard better than that managed by Duke, good for eighth in the conference.  The lack of a respectable ground game was a significant contributing factor in at least two critical conference losses – Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.  With a solid rushing attack, the Tar Heels might have finished 7-1 in the conference instead of 5-3. 


In fairness to the guys carrying the pigskin, the running game isn't just about the backs; it is also about the guys who plough the row ahead of them, the offensive line.  Last year, both groups were young and inexperienced. 


The offensive line appears to be coming together this season, at least that is the report from Tar Heel players.  "We have a great offensive line; they have been working their butts off. Blocking well, opening up holes," reports tail back Andre Williams.  And it isn't just the tail backs who say so. 


"It's a stronger offensive line," says defensive tackle Eric Davis, who lines up against them in practice.  It's a better offensive line.  They've got their system down pat, so it's going to help us out more.  There's a lot of things we need to get used to.  They run a lot of different plays and throw a lot at us, so if we can block them up, we can block pretty much anybody."


That perception wasn't necessarily shared, however, by offensive line coach Hal Hunter as the Tar Heels moved into their first practice in full pads, "They're making progress, but they're not where they need to be.  I don't know if we have any strength or any weaknesses right now.  The only strength that we have is probably that we've got great attitude.  I think that having a great attitude will take us where we need to go."


Perhaps Coach Powell sums it up best regarding the offensive line, ‘I think our offensive line is also a little bit better than last year, so that will help."  So there you have it.  Average out the perceptions of the staff and players, and it is a good bet to say that the offensive line will certainly be improved, but perhaps is a season or two away from being a dominant offensive line. 


Manning the running back spot is a trio consisting of juniors Willie Parker and Andre Williams, and true sophomore Jacque Lewis. 


As of the date of this article, when asked who his starter would be, head coach John Bunting said, "I don't know, I really don't know.  Right now, if we started tomorrow, Jacque Lewis would be the starter.  His blocking, his explosiveness, his willingness...he catches the ball better than anybody and he is also what we believe to be our best blocker."


Coach Bunting's uncertainty is well-founded.  None of the three running backs, though each had his moments, has clearly separated from the other two, something Coach Powell devoutly wishes would change.


"If I could pick and choose, I would have one guy get the bulk of the time," said Powell, "I wish one guy would come out of the pack.  But to this point, none of them have."


It seems that all of the tail backs began fall practice in different places.  "I just want to fit into the pieces of the puzzle where the coaches want me to fit in right now.  I am coming off surgery, I missed spring ball, I am just trying to fit in where I can right now," says running back Andre Williams, who was the primary rusher until an injury to his back last season caused his playing time to dwindle and finally end. 


Williams is practicing in the evenings, and going through rehab in the mornings while his teammates practice. "It is going real good, I am improving.  Everything is going according to plan.  I

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