Backup plan vital to offensive success in NCAA football


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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There are best laid plans for the running game.

And there is the injury report.

The former is greatly impacted -- sometimes thrown totally out of whack -- by the latter.

That's why there are backup running backs.

In college football, though, cultivating backup runners is a tricky science, a tightrope walk toward making the back ready and trustworthy.

Charlie Strong, in his first season as Louisville's coach, understands there is no hard and fast rule for deciding when a backup is ready to be called on.

Coaches know the true tenor of a game can never be simulated in practice. A coach never knows what he has in a player until he sees the backup against another team.

"You just got to play them," Strong said, as he chuckled. "You just don't know. Sometimes you don't know if a starter is ready. You just have to feel like you've coached them and they understand well enough.

"And, you've placed them in a situation in practice where, when his number is called, he is ready and prepared to go play."

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart used a law enforcement analogy to sum up his feelings when he needs to send a backup into the game.

"It is baptism under fire," Stewart said. "How do you know when you go to the academy that you are ready to hit the streets? Until the lights are on, you really don't know. You think you know because of competition and practice ... but you don't really ever know until you get in there."

Stewart's Mountaineers (3-1) will play host to UNLV (1-4) Saturday, and standout senior running back Noel Devine is fighting through a bone bruise in his toe.

If Devine can't play, or is limited, which running back gets the bulk of the carries?

When Devine was injured -- and subsequently limited -- in West Virginia's most recent game against LSU, sophomore running back Ryan Clarke was the only other non-quarterback to run the ball, getting seven carries.

Clarke is more of a hybrid fullback-tailback and West Virginia is in the process of cultivating a true backup tailback. Redshirt freshman Daquan Hargrett and sophomore Shawne Alston are listed behind Devine on the depth chart, but freshman Trey Johnson has risen to the point where he might be able to spell Devine. If none of those players is trusted, a shift of a wide receiver to running back could occur, with the more experienced Jock Sanders, a senior, or sophomore Tavon Austin playing running back.

West Virginia running backs/slot receivers coach Chris Beatty was noncommittal on what the plan will be against UNLV if Devine is restricted.

"I think [Johnson, Hargrett and Alston] are ready, and I feel like they are," Beatty said. "But we have a backup plan if they are not. You have to be prepared for every situation and we will see how it goes. But they need opportunity to see if they can do what they need to do."

One player who received an opportunity was Pitt sophomore Ray Graham.

Now he is on a list with Tony Dorsett.

With sophomore starter Dion Lewis on the mend last week, Graham stepped in and performed marvelously, rushing for 277 yards and touchdowns of 84, 34 and 19 yards against Florida International. Dorsett's 303-yard performance against Notre Dame in 1975 is the only time a Pitt back has rushed for more yards.

Make no mistake, people around college football noticed Graham's big day, and were impressed by it -- even Pitt's biggest rivals.

"I don't think they knew Graham was Graham until he actually had a chance to go do it," said Beatty, the Mountaineers assistant. "Thankful for us, Noel [Devine] hasn't been hurt for us like Dion [Lewis] is. It is just opportunity, and you see how guys play when they get that opportunity."

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said the key to keeping a backup running back sharp isn't just on the field, but also some truthfulness in the meeting room.

"You have to be honest with them, he really needs to have a clear picture of what his opportunities are," Wannstedt said. "There are so many success stories of guys who were second, third, fourth team at the beginning of the year, and because they hung with it, and didn't get discouraged, when their opportunity came, they took advantage of it."

The hesitancy, or lack thereof, most times with inserting the backup running back isn't rooted in what he does when he carries the football. Rather, it comes with all the other intricacies of the position; protection schemes, pass catching and knowing where they need to be on pass plays.

In short, a coach needs to trust that a player is not going to get someone else hurt -- most of all the quarterback -- when he doesn't have the ball.

"Most of the guys know what to do when they get the ball in their hands," Beatty said. "A lot of it is being able to do the other stuff. ... It is more what you do when you don't have the ball in your hands than what you do when you have it."

All of it, though, is what a backup running back does to make the coaches trust in giving them an opportunity -- and then, quite literally, running with it when they get it.


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459.


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