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|Darrell Mack and Matt Asiata provide a solid 1-2 punch for the Utes.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
Two months ago, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had no idea what he was going to do with his running back situation.
On one hand, there was Darrell Mack, a senior who rushed for 1,204 yards last season, the third-best performance by a running back in school history, and wasn't even the starter at the beginning of the season.
On the other hand, there was Matt Asiata, a junior college transfer who was the starting running back last year before he broke his leg during the first quarter of the first game before he could ever get his FBS career started.
Neither Whittingham nor running backs coach Dave Schramm was willing to make the decision outright, so they challenged both players to beat the other out. But neither did, and Utah quickly realized that it had a two-pronged attack, the likes of which is rarely seen in the Mountain West.
"We list them as 1 and 1a. They're two starters as far as we're concerned," Whittingham said. "It's working out to this point in time just as we hoped it would with both of them giving us good production and then splitting the reps equally... Over the course of the season we expect that to be very balanced. If we can get 125 yards or so from those guys each week, which right now we're just right about that, we'll be in good shape as far as the running game's concerned."
Whittingham's not exaggerating when he's says his backs split carries. Through five games this season, Asiata has 64 carries for 320 yards and six touchdowns and Mack has 65 carries for 319 yards and three touchdowns.
Whittingham didn't expect the number to be that close because the two alternate series and some drives last longer than others. But both Whittingham and Schramm agree that there's no difference between the two. Both are goal-line backs and both are effective on third down. And Schramm said both are effective pass blockers, which makes them even more effective in the offense.
"I think they both want to be in there the whole time and if they don't, we recruited the wrong guys," Schramm said. "They're running backs, they want the ball every play and I appreciate that. But they understand that this is a team deal and they have a lot of respect for each other. Do they want to come out? No. Do they have an attitude when the other guy's in? I'd say absolutely not.
"It's like I tell them all the time, this is the situation. You've got to make your reps count, don't count your reps."
While both players admit that they'd love to carry the ball all the time and gain 1,000 yards this season, they know the current scheme is working and it's helping the team win games. The Utes are fourth in the Mountain West in rushing offense and second in the conference in total offense behind rival BYU. Both feel like the minute they start getting selfish in the running game, the magical season Utah has put together through the first month could disappear.
"Everybody wants the ball at times, but it's not about that, it's about being a team player," Mack said. "If my team wins and we're splitting carries, that's something that's helping us right now. Right now it's a good thing."
And it could be a good thing for Utah down the road. Both Mack and Asiata remarked that they're feeling fresher through five games than they've ever felt in their careers. That's especially good for Asiata, who's suffered several injuries since coming to Utah from Snow College last year. During last year's fall camp, he suffered a sprained foot. Then he broke his leg against Oregon State and during this year's fall camp, he suffered a sprained ankle.
"I think the first game the injuries were in my head," Asiata said. "But now, I think I'm over it."
Mack and Asiata agreed that they complement each other, but weren't ready to give their tandem a nickname like Clemson's James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who are nicknamed Thunder and Lightning. Schramm said it's not his running backs' style to dub themselves anything no matter how well they're playing.
"It's Be On Time and Pay Attention for me," Schramm said. "They're awesome. I love coaching them. I think the thing that makes it enjoyable coaching those guys is they have a great respect for each other. They have a great respect for this football team, and they're doing everything they can to help us win every game."