No clear-cut workhorse back

Dogs see Malcome, freshmen Gurley, Mitchell as necessary depth at RB

Updated: August 29, 2012, 9:59 PM ET
By David Ching | DawgNation

ATHENS, Ga. -- Willie McClendon might not have been a perfect fit for the Georgia backfield that his son, Bryan, now coaches.

[+] EnlargeWillie McClendon
University of Georgia/Getty ImagesUGA RB Willie McClendon set records in 1978 with 1,312 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. His son Bryan is now running-backs coach.
When Willie McClendon won SEC Player of the Year honors in 1978, he was the classic workhorse tailback, averaging more than 24 carries per game as he compiled 1,312 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns -- all of which were Georgia records until a guy named Herschel Walker found his way to Athens two years later. But Georgia hasn't had a tailback average 20-plus carries in a season since Garrison Hearst in 1992 and it most likely won't this fall, with up to four backs dividing the rushing attempts.

That type of backfield depth is different from not only 30 years ago, but from most of the nine years that Bryan McClendon has been involved in the Bulldogs program as a player, graduate assistant and running backs coach.

"It's different in that I do think we have a little wider selection, so to speak," McClendon said of the tailback rotation that includes Ken Malcome, Richard Samuel and true freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. "I do think we have a lot more quality than we've had here in a while and I definitely think you have to look at playing more than one, two, maybe even three guys going into the game. And that hasn't been the case here in a minute."

Tailbacks like Walker and Willie McClendon still exist at college football's highest levels, but they are becoming increasingly rare. Only 19 FBS players averaged 20-plus carries per game last season, down from 29 in 2001. Even in the run-centric SEC, the conference's leading rusher has averaged fewer than 20 carries per game in four of the last nine seasons.

"Just as far as how guys are getting equipped -- guys getting bigger, faster, stronger -- the collisions are a lot bigger. I tease my dad all the time that it was hard to see a nose guard like John Jenkins that he played against," McClendon said, referring to Georgia's 360-pound nose guard, who possesses uncommon agility for a player his size.

"There were a million great players back in that day, but bodies have changed and everything else, which has evolved into [running backs] taking a pounding week in and week out. So I think you definitely need more than one guy."

Instead of hammering the run with the same back again and again, many top teams use backfield depth to their advantage. LSU had four players rush for more than 300 yards and at least seven touchdowns apiece last season. Alabama employed a similar setup in recent seasons, supplementing the production by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram with contributions from Trent Richardson in 2009, and then using Richardson and Eddie Lacy as a dynamic 1-2 punch last season.

"Rarely is it one guy," said Marshall, who was ESPN's No. 5 overall prospect and No. 2 running back in the 2012 signing class. "You know, [Alabama had] Trent Richardson, they had Mark Ingram and they had Eddie Lacy last year, so everybody has more than one running back to get the job done."

And that's the way Georgia intends to get the job done this fall. Georgia lists Malcome, who was a strong performer during spring and preseason practices, as the starter. Marshall and Gurley are the co-No. 2 tailbacks behind him, with Samuel listed behind them at tailback and behind Merritt Hall at fullback.

Malcome has authored one of the Bulldogs' feel-good stories over the last year, rebuilding his reputation among the coaching staff after briefly quitting the team a year ago.

He barely played in the first three-fourths of last season, but led the Bulldogs in rushing in each of their last three games. Now he receives regular compliments from Georgia coach Mark Richt for his improved attitude and commitment to his responsibilities on and off the field.

"[I learned] how to be a college running back," Malcome said. "It's not like high school. You've got to know everything and little things count. I realized that and everything else started to fall into place and runs are a lot more easy for me now."

Even if Malcome starts Saturday's opener against Buffalo, it's the freshmen who generated the most buzz in preseason practices. Gurley surprised even himself with his productivity in August -- particularly in the Bulldogs' three scrimmages, in which he rushed for 199 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries according to UGA's unofficial stats.

"I didn't think I was going to do pretty good in August because I didn't know anything," Gurley said. "But the older guys helped me out and just kept pushing and working with me and it just came to me."

Marshall didn't account for as many yards in the scrimmages, but his combination of blazing speed and elusiveness has teammates excited about what he might be able to accomplish on fall Saturdays.

In particular, several have mentioned the juke move he put on two scout team players during the Bulldogs' final team scrimmage, leaving them in the dust as he escaped for a 23-yard touchdown.

"Keith put a move on somebody the other day that I hadn't seen in a while," senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. "He shook two people and they both fell down. That's pretty special to me because I haven't seen somebody just blatantly fall down because someone did a move on them."

McClendon said his goal throughout preseason practices was to split carries between the four backs as evenly as possible in order to give each of them a fair chance to compete. Now that the season has arrived, McClendon will take their individual skills into account as he determines which players to use in the various offensive packages.

But he has no shortage of options from which to choose -- and that should come in handy as the Bulldogs attempt to keep their no-huddle offense moving at a brisk pace this fall.

"We just have so much depth right now and it's great, especially for a no-huddle offense where you're not given a break," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "You're not getting to go to the huddle and have 10, 15 seconds to catch your breath. You're going, going, going and we're going to need that depth. We're going to need those guys rotating in and out to make sure everyone stays fresh."