Committee of Running Backs
Sept. 18, 2014
By Austin Miller, OleMissSports.com
Not a running back by committee, but a committee of running backs.
Ole Miss doesn't have one running back to carry the football. Instead, Ole Miss has a committee of running backs with different strengths for different situations, giving the Rebels a number of weapons for each defense they face.
"You look at all the teams that have won the SEC Championship, and teams that are playing for the National Championship, and they are playing three, sometimes four really good running backs who they can interchange in different situations," Ole Miss running backs coach Derrick Nix said. "All the good teams, especially on offense, have had at least three running backs who can go out and perform at a high level. That's what we're trying to establish here at Ole Miss."
One of the challenges with six capable players in the backfield is getting them enough reps in practice and plays in games, not only to evaluate, but also to keep them involved in the offense.
"We'll start having packages for each running back and we'll play to their strengths," Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. "I think I'Tavius (Mathers) and (Mark) Dodson and (Jordan) Wilkins can do anything we ask them to do. Jaylen (Walton) is a favorite, but when he's in, the pass protection needs to be geared toward what he can do. I'm not overly concerned. I'm more concerned if we don't get enough adequate looks to see what they can really do."
"I continue to evaluate them every day and make sure we have the right player in the right role during the game based on how they practice during the week, what they see in the film room and what they do in the game," Nix said. "I have to know when guys are getting better or maybe guys have not progressed as well, because it never stays the same."
When Freeze arrived at Ole Miss in 2012, then-freshmen I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton were understudies to more experienced running backs in Jeff Scott and Randall Mackey.
Two years later, after learning the offense and taking on large roles in the offense, Mathers and Walton are leading men in the running back room as the team's leading returning rushers in 2014, backed up by four capable first-year and second-year players.
"They have learned by trial and error," said Nix of Mathers and Walton. "Looking back at it, we wish we could have redshirted both of them, but they both had to play out of necessity. They have taken the experience they had as freshmen and sophomores to help them evolve into the players they are now. The biggest thing is they have supreme confidence in any assignment and overall understanding they have of the offense."
Among the second-year players is sophomore Mark Dodson, who Nix described as the most knowledgeable and studious of the running backs. For Dodson, it's a similar role to last season, as he looks to make the most of his opportunities in a crowded backfield.
"We know that when we're in there, we have to make something happen because we have another man who has the same talent as us, so we're out there doing what we can and taking advantage of every opportunity," Dodson said.
"By playing last year, Mark was able to get adjusted to the speed of the game on the SEC level and learning the rigors of what it takes, week in and week out, to get prepared and ready to go," Nix said. "He didn't get a lot of plays or reps, but he was ready every week. He's a guy who can do everything in our offense."
Another second-year player is redshirt-freshman Jordan Wilkins, who was redshirted in 2013, due in part to suffering a season-ending knee injury as a senior in high school. Wilkins saw the bigger picture and the benefits of sitting out last season and it has helped him show the maturity and approach of an upperclassman.
"I was upset at first because everybody wants to come in and play," Wilkins said. "I never really had to sit out for anything. It kind of took a lot and it humbled me, but I came back stronger. I know a lot of people go through it, but it's tough. Nobody wants to hear that, but Coach Freeze and them had a great plan for me. That's what I should have done, especially coming off my injury."
"He showed what we all had been looking for when we recruited him," said Nix of Wilkins' college debut against Boise State, in which he had five carries for 21 hard-earned yards. "He's a guy who can get yards when it's not blocked all the way up. He showed that he can run through tackles. He's a guy who can handle an extra player in the box. We expect big things from him going forward."
That's not to mention redshirt-freshman Eugene Brazley, who, like Wilkins, redshirted in 2013 after suffering a torn ACL in late July, and junior Akeem Judd, the nation's No. 1 junior college running back by multiple outlets.
With the depth from top to bottom, Nix compared this year's stable of running backs to the Rebels' 2009 group, which included two future NFL players in Dexter McCluster and Brandon Bolden.
The biggest thing for this year's group, Nix said, is their great sense of selflessness, adding that they are their own biggest cheerleaders for each other.
"Guys are willing to accept whatever role they have and do it to the best of their abilities," Nix said. "Every one of my guys knows if someone gets the hot hand, we're going to stay with them. Different games bring out different scenarios. It's a matter of time and we'll see how it plays out. They have to keep competing."
"I'm not going to complain about playing time," Wilkins said. "Jaylen and I'Tavius are great backs. We have an awesome backfield. Whenever my number is called, I just want to go do what they want me to do. We all have to share carries. That's part of the game. We all bring different things to the table."
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