NCF Nation: Rushell Shell

To have a workhorse back or to split reps? That is the question.

And it certainly is a question on the minds of Big East coaches around the league. With five starters gone headed into 2012, and Ray Graham coming off ACL surgery, this is a position of intrigue during the spring. The ultimate decision has to be made about whether to rely on one back a lion's share of the time, or whether to get a nice rotation going to provide yourself some depth and versatility.

Two league coaches offered their opinions recently on the matter, and both are in favor of finding a workhorse back. Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson pointed to 2010, when Bilal Powell had 229 carries and 1,405 yards. Victor Anderson had the next-highest carries total with 64. Last season, the Cardinals distributed the ball more evenly among its backs -- Anderson and Dominique Brown each had over 100 carries -- and did not fare as well in the ground game.

But it is important to keep in mind the offensive line had its share of struggles as well.

[+] EnlargeLyle McCombs
Brian Pohorylo/Icon SMILyle McCombs had a strong rookie season, but he'll face competition to be the go-to guy coach Paul Pasqualoni wants.
Still, Watson said he wants to find a go-to guy among the four players competing for the starting running back position. “We need someone to be the war daddy at that position, like Bilal Powell was in (Charlie) Strong’s first season,” said Watson. “Biggest thing we look back at is not having a go-to guy. We have to find a go-to-guy. That creates competition in the room and makes everyone better.”

At UConn, Lyle McCombs returns after putting up 1,000 yards his freshman season, but there is some nice competition at the position this spring with D.J. Shoemate returning from injury, in addition to Joe Williams, Martin Hyppolite and Max DeLorenzo. But coach Paul Pasqualoni wants one go-to guy as well.

“I don’t want a guy that’s got to come out of the game," Pasqualoni told reporters in Connecticut. "I don’t want a guy that’s saying I’m tired, take me out. I don’t want a Jaguar. Do you know what a Jaguar is? The Jaguar is always in the shop, always breaking down so I don’t want a Jaguar. I want a durable guy and if we put him in the game he stays in the game and he stays in the game. We’re trying to develop the depth we have but I’m all for one guy staying out there. Now we’re going to use the talents and ability we have but I want them all to be able to do it if you know what I mean.”

Last season, four running backs had over 200 carries. Had Graham been healthy, that number would have been five. Rutgers and Cincinnati also went with one back primarily. This season, that may not be the case. Rutgers coach Kyle Flood already has talked about the value of having more than one back consistently produce, while coach Butch Jones has talked about trying to get more backs involved to make up for the loss of Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead.

USF had three players with over 100 carries last season. The last time USF had a back with over 200 carries was Andre Hall in 2005, but even then the Bulls had another player with over 100 carries as well.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst has shown a proclivity to get multiple backs involved as well, but some of his offenses at Wisconsin did rely on one workhorse. If Graham returns on schedule, one would expect him to get the majority of the carries, but Isaac Bennett has had a nice spring game, and freshman Rushell Shell arrives in the summer.

As for Temple, the Owls relied on Bernard Pierce in recent years, though Matt Brown got his share of the carries. That load falls to him this season, with the hope that other backs can get involved as well.

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