Multi-running back systems rule the SEC

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
10:51
AM ET
Houston Nutt has always taken pride in a treacherous rushing attack. Mostly because its success relied on multiple bodies.

There was Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas. And more recently at Ole Miss he’s had the combinations of Dexter McCluster, Cordera Eason, Brandon Bolden, Jeff Scott and even a little Enrique Davis.

In Nutt’s three seasons at Ole Miss, his teams have averaged 186.5, 183.6 and 207.6 yards per game during a full season. Most of that damage was done with the help of the use of multiple running backs in the offense.

[+] EnlargeJeff Scott
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyRunning back Jeff Scott has had to carry the load for Mississippi because of injuries.
Fast forward to 2011, and Nutt finds himself without a strong running game and his Rebels are 1-2, averaging 109 rushing yards a game, which ranks 11th in the SEC.

Nutt watched as his top two backs -- Bolden and Davis -- went down with injuries in Week 1, leaving Scott to carry the load. Scott has been successful, but not having that second punch in the backfield has hurt the Rebels’ offense.

Bolden returned last week, but Ole Miss still couldn’t run the ball effectively. Without a successful multiple rushing attack, Nutt thinks any offense will struggle in this league.

“It’s a must,” Nutt said of having a multi-running back system in the SEC. “You probably gotta have three -- two for sure -- but you need three and sometimes four. This is the guy that’s going to get hit … this is the guy that’s gonna take some shots. How durable you are at the position is really the key for the year.”

Look at past three national champions.

In 2008, Florida basically used four rushers in quarterback Tim Tebow, wide receiver Percy Harvin and running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Each eclipsed the 600-yard mark and had four or more touchdowns. The Gators averaged 231.1 rushing yards per game and finished 13-1.

Alabama’s 2009 team had one of the toughest running back duos around in Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Ingram won the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns. Richardson, then a freshman, had 751 yards and eight scores.

Of course, Auburn’s perfect run last season was fueled by the three-headed rushing monster of quarterback Cam Newton and running backs Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb. Newton and Dyer both rushed for more than 1,000 yards (Newton had 1,400-plus) and McCalebb had 810, giving Auburn a staggering 284.8 rushing yards per game.

Currently, four -- Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt -- of the top six rushing teams in the SEC consistently utilize multiple running backs. Tennessee, Ole Miss and Kentucky are at the bottom of the league in rushing and don’t.

South Carolina, the SEC’s top rushing team, runs on Marcus Lattimore power, something coach Steve Spurrier worries could begin to weaken over time without some help. Lattimore already leads the nation in yards (534) and carries (87).

Alabama coach Nick Saban understands Spurrier’s concern, saying the use of more running backs helps keep players fresh and the offense firing. Saban's combo of Richardson and Eddie Lacy has combined for 619 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it that if you’re going to be able to run the ball it’s always good to have a guy who’s healthy and fresh out there that can give a little change of pace and have a little juice all the time,” Saban said. “That’s been beneficial for us for several years now.”

Seeing two talented running backs lineup together can also have defenses spinning, wondering who and how to attack.

“We’re going to be anywhere from empty to three backs,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose rushing attack averages 210.3 yards a game. “That’s what’s difficult in preparing for our offense.

“There are a lot of multiple formations and shifts and different things that happen with the same personnel on the field.”

For Richardson, he’s thrived in a two-running back operation and loves it, even though he’s the go-to guy. It not only keeps him energized but it makes wearing down defenses that much more fun.

“It’s like, how are you going to control these two guys?” he said. “With the rotation that they have, and with the features they have to bring to the field, it’s kind of hard to slow these guys down.”

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