- David M. Hale, College football
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Brandon Radcliff has an affinity for power backs in the NFL, with Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch likely his favorite. So when the Seahawks had a goal-line play that could have won them the Super Bowl in February, Radcliff was as flummoxed as the rest of the nation when they failed to put the ball in the hands of their star running back.
“I texted my running backs coach and said that it was crazy,” Radcliff said.
For Radcliff, a play like that is a matter of principle, and it’s a slap at his football belief system to see a team throwing in short-yardage scenarios. When a few yards are all that separates a win or a loss, that’s his time to shine.
“That’s what every running back should take pride in,” Radcliff said. “Third down belongs to the running back.”
Throughout the 2014 season, Radcliff backed up those words. Few tailbacks in the nation were as good as he was at digging for the tough yards.
On third down, Radcliff picked up the first on 13 of his 18 carries, seventh best of any Power 5 back.
Behind the line of scrimmage, he was a ghost. Just nine of his 144 carries (6.2 percent) ended in a loss -- the third-best rate in the ACC and well ahead of Louisville counterpart Michael Dyer (22 percent).
And when Radcliff smelled the goal line, he was nearly impossible to bring down. His 12 rushing TDs ranked third among ACC running backs, but his rate of scoring -- once every 12 rushes -- trailed only Pitt’s James Conner, the league’s offensive player of the year.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Radcliff said. “People see me as a power back to get those short yards and get downfield.”
Still, Radcliff’s role fluctuated last season. He opened the year as Louisville’s No. 3 option, took over as the starter a few weeks later, was surpassed by Dyer midseason, then regained a stranglehold on carries by year’s end. He finished the season with five games in which he ran for 89 yards or more and six games in which he failed to crack 30.
But if his role was inconsistent, Radcliff’s effort never wavered. That’s why he enters 2015 as the clear favorite for carries in Louisville’s backfield.
“That’s why Brandon took over midyear, just by how hard he practiced and how hard he worked,” coach Bobby Petrino said. “And I’ve seen that in the spring too. It’s easy for his teammates to see why he’s the guy carrying the ball because of how hard he works in practice.”
That’s not to say Radcliff is a sure bet to blossom into a bell-cow back for Louisville in 2015. L.J. Scott, a bruising sophomore, will get reps too, and junior college transfer Jeremy Smith has made an instant impact on the practice field.
“He’s a talented guy, has really good vision, hard to tackle,” Petrino said of Smith. “His thing right now is just the knowledge of the offense.”
That too should provide Radcliff with an edge this year.
Last season’s success wasn’t a surprise, but it was a big leap forward for him. This spring has been about boning up on the details that may have gotten lost as his role grew in 2014. So Radcliff’s nose has been in the playbook and his energy remains high on the practice field. He’s got loftier expectations now that he’s an established threat.
And if there’s one thing Radcliff showed last season, it’s that he’s at his best when the goal line is in sight.
“Just being humble and hungry -- better than I was last year,” he said. “I want to come back out and improve my numbers and have a bigger workload.”
The Cardinals running back wants his hands on the ball when it's time to grind out yardage.