Last month, we wrote a bit about the shift toward backfields-by-committee, noting that most coaches now prefer to have at least two tailbacks with complementary skill sets that can, ideally, lighten the load on one another.
But look around the ACC during the first two weeks of the season, and you'll notice a couple of obvious counterpoints to that logic.
The first came in Week 1, when Louisville tailback Dominique Brown carried 33 times in a win against Miami. No other tailback in the nation had more than 30 rushes, but Brown's bell-cow effort helped the Cardinals out-muscle Miami and took some of the burden off a quarterback making his first career start.
Four days later, it was Pitt's James Conner who set the standard for rushing attempts, toting the rock a whopping 36 times in a road win against Boston College. Again, Conner's tally was three more than any other tailback in the nation -- and six more than any other running back at a Power 5 school.
The rationale for all those carries, according to Pitt coach Paul Chryst, was simple: Necessity. From Yahoo!: "We feel like we've got a pretty good gauge for workloads," Chryst said. "We needed it, and [Conner] was rolling pretty good. I thought it was alright."
It's certainly not all that uncommon to have a tailback -- particularly big, bruising runners such as Conner and Brown -- get 30-plus carries in a game. It happened 72 times last season, including a herculean 48-carry effort by Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey against Oregon last November. Last season, 10 ACC games featured a running back getting 30 or more carries, though six of those games were turned in by BC's Andre Williams. (And, for what it's worth, Boston College running backs account for eight of the nine heaviest workloads in the ACC since 2008.)
What is a bit more unusual, however, is for tailbacks to carry such a big load so early in the season.
Among all Power 5 teams from 2009 through 2013, only 15 games played in August or September (an average of three per year) featured a tailback carrying the ball at least 33 times (Brown's total from Week 1) and only six matched or exceeded Conner's 36-carry effort. What's more, that list includes three runners -- Le'Veon Bell, Bishop Sankey and Marcus Lattimore -- who had at least 33 carries in an August/September game twice. In other words, Conner and Brown joined a club that includes just 12 other members from the past five seasons.
And if we look at those names, it's an impressive group.
Bell (Michigan State, 2012)
Sankey (Washington, 2013)
Montee Ball (Wisconsin, 2012)
Lattimore (South Carolina, 2010 and 2011)
Mark Weisman (Iowa, 2013)
A. Williams (Boston College, 2013)
Marcus Coker (Iowa, 2011)
DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma, 2010)
Kenjon Barner (Oregon, 2012)
Daniel Thomas (Kansas State, 2010)
Ryan Williams (Virginia Tech, 2009)
Malcolm Agnew (Oregon State, 2011)
(*Note: ACC players in italics.)
There are a lot of highly-touted, big-impact players there, and the vast majority have gone on to jobs in the NFL -- including Bell, Ball, Murray and Sankey as starters. That puts Conner and Brown in good company.
Of course, there's also a reason that 33-carry games don't happen much in September. There's a toll it takes on tailbacks getting hit that many times, and most coaches aren't interested in risking that for an early season game.
But does it really make an impact?
The answer is ... sort of.
Of those 15 early season games in which a tailback carried at least 33 times, there was only one example of that running back returning in his next game to exceed 100 yards on the ground. Sankey followed his 40-carry, 161-yard game against Arizona with a 27-carry, 125-yard game against Stanford, but the other 14 follow-up contests fell far short of the century mark.
So there does appear to be something of a hangover effect for the following week. On average, the 15 previous tailbacks to carry at least 33 times in a September game mustered 16 carries for 64 yards (and 4.0 yards-per-carry) in their follow-ups.
But down the road, it doesn't really seem to make much difference. Yes, Lattimore and Agnew dealt with injuries, but it's tough to draw any distinct correlation. And Weisman had just one more 100-yard game the rest of the season, but he's probably an anomaly in the group anyway. Aside from Lattimore and Agnew, the other 11 runners to make the list had finished their respective seasons with 302 rushes and five more 100-yard games, on average.
Brown's follow-up last week fit the trend: five carries, 40 yards and a TD. It was a light load against an inferior opponent, but he looked fine.
With Pitt traveling to take on a less-than-dangerous FIU team this week, don't be surprised if there's a similar recipe in store for Conner coming off his big game, but Chryst has made it clear, he's got a workhorse back and he plans to use Conner as such.
"I think that he's kind of built for it," Chryst said. "He's a big back, so obviously will take hits, but knock on wood, handles that. I think that he's one that he truly loves playing and competing, and I think that that's all part of it."