Browning Talks Running Backs

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – With Week One preparations set to begin on Sunday, there is still no clear-cut starter at running back for the season opener against James Madison on Sept. 1. Position coach Ken Browning sat down with Inside Carolina Thursday afternoon to break down the offensive backfield and share his thoughts on the four players seeking the job.

In this sports world of statistical analysis, here are some rather shocking numbers for Tar Heel fans – one carry for (-1) yard. That represents the game experience that North Carolina has at running back, as sophomore Richie Rich is the only player competing for the starting job with any live game repetitions. The closest redshirt freshmen Johnny White and Anthony Elzy, as well as true freshman Ryan Houston, have gotten to collegiate action has been in practice at Navy Field.

Browning looks at that inexperience as an opportunity for his position group to excel as the season moves along this fall.

"It's always been my thinking that those guys can improve more than anyone over the course of the season, because they've got so many things that they can better at just by understanding it and learning it," Browning said. "A lot of the things that happen to them right now [are] happening for the first time, so they'll keep learning and building a base of knowledge about the game overall and I think they'll continue to get better because of that."

Head coach Butch Davis mentioned on Wednesday afternoon that the first game would be a revelation for the running backs, as the players will be playing under the lights for essentially the first time in their careers. Browning agreed, but cautioned fans not to draw too many conclusions from the season opener next Saturday.

"What happens in the first game or the second game may not have any bearing at all on what happens in games three and four, or seven and eight, or 10 and 11, because things change as the year goes on," Browning said. "Hopefully we'll stay healthy, but even as guys improve, they have learning curves that occur at different times. So a guy that may be ahead early in the year [may get passed] – he may be improving, too, but another guy is just improving faster."

Rich is the veteran of the group, a third-year player who caught twice as many passes (2) as he had carries (1) last season.

"He does not make many bad reads – he's pretty good at understanding the concepts of the plays, the blocking angles and where holes open, and he hits those pretty well," Browning said. "He's got a quick burst. He's got some power – I want him to break more tackles than he does at times. He's a good pass receiver and a good pass protector."

Elzy and White enrolled at UNC together with the 2006 recruiting class, and Browning indicated that their running styles and abilities were very similar on the practice field.

"They're somewhat different, and at the same time, they have a lot of things in common," Browning said. "… I don't know that that pair has separated one from the other yet. I'll just keep repping them some, make sure we've got them ready and then see how the game unfolds."

Houston is the newcomer of the bunch, a 6-foot-2, 245-pounder that looks more like a defensive end than he does a tail back. An Elzy ankle sprain two weeks ago allowed the Matthews, N.C. native to move up and take more reps during practice.

"The more reps he got, the faster he improved," Browning said. "… He's got power, and he's not an easy man to tackle. We want him to get faster, work on his burst and explosion once he does see a crease."

Regardless of what talents this stable of running backs brings to the table, preventing turnovers will be a necessity for those who take the field this fall.

"The No.1 thing that you want a tailback to do when he's touching the ball is to make sure that he hands the ball back to the official when the plays over," Browning said. "Whether we score a touchdown or whether we get tackled, we want to make sure we have great ball security."

No decision has been made about cutting the rotation down to three backs, so there's a good chance that Tar Heel fans will see all four players take the field against James Madison.

Browning made it clear that the game will dictate who plays and how much they play – if a running back is hot, then the coaching staff will ride that player as far as he can take them. The goal is to win games, not to meet rushing attempt quotas on an organizational chart.

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