On the first play of Rutgers' intrasquad scrimmage last weekend, sophomore tailback Mason Robinson took a handoff and raced 70 yards for a touchdown. A few plays later, freshman Jourdan Brooks burst through the line and raced 65 yards for a score, covering the last 40 yards or so without one of his shoes.
Without record-setting tailback Ray Rice, it only seems as if the Scarlet Knights are running on one leg this spring.
Actually, Rutgers figures to be running on eight legs this coming season.
"Ray is a great player, so it's certainly a big hole to fill," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "Not only in yards and production, but he brought a lot to the team in terms of leadership and character. But we feel like we've got some good running backs who can do the job."
And Schiano plans on using all of them. As many as four running backs could play this fall, if junior Kordell Young fully recovers from a knee injury that caused him to miss all but three games in 2007. Robinson, Brooks and sophomore Joe Martinek also are competing for playing time in a suddenly crowded Rutgers backfield.
"There's probably a good chance it will be tailback-by-committee," Schiano said. "The good thing is we've got really good competition between good players. The bad thing is we lost the all-time leading rusher in Rutgers' history. There's a little anxiety that goes with that, but it's going to be exciting to see how these young guys come together."
There's probably a good chance it will be tailback-by-committee. The good thing is we've got really good competition between good players. The bad thing is we lost the all-time leading rusher in Rutgers' history.
-- Rutgers coach Greg Schiano
The Scarlet Knights always could count on Rice's being ready. Last year, Rice became only the 13th player in NCAA Division I-A history to gain 2,000 rushing yards in a season, running 380 times for 2,012 yards with 24 touchdowns. Rice averaged 29 carries per game last season, then bolted for the NFL draft before his mileage warranty expired.
"It's a really big challenge because Ray was an every-down back and carried a lot of the load for us," Robinson said. "We're tough, but Ray was definitely stronger than us. He could make people miss, but he could run through people, too."
Robinson, from Somerville, N.J., has emerged as the most explosive running back in spring camp. In high school, Robinson ran the 100 meters in 10.51 seconds, the seventh-fastest time in New Jersey history. He ran 36 times for 202 yards after Young was hurt last season.
"He can really run," Schiano said. "So can Kordell Young."
Young, from West Deptford, N.J., showed that explosiveness playing behind Rice in each of the past two seasons. He ran 29 times for 138 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2006, then gained 58 yards on 18 carries before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a 59-0 win over Division I-AA Norfolk State on Sept. 15. Young has been held out of contact this spring, but Schiano said he is on track to be ready for preseason camp.
If nothing else, the Scarlet Knights figure to be more of a threat to break longer runs in 2008. Last season, Rutgers had only one run longer than 65 yards -- Rice's 90-yard touchdown in a 52-30 victory over Ball State in the International Bowl. Rice ran 35 times for 280 yards and four touchdowns in his final college game.
"Kordell is a track guy who can really run," Schiano said. "Mason is not as thick, but he's got really good feet and really good speed."
Like Rice, Brooks is more of a bruising runner. Brooks signed with Rutgers as a fullback, after carrying only 66 times as a senior at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Md. He reported to Rutgers weighing 255 pounds last year. After moving to tailback, Brooks lost about 20 pounds and trimmed his body fat to only 10 percent.
"He's a physical specimen," Schiano said. "We think he can change it up a little bit for us."
Martinek, from Hopatcong, N.J., is the most heralded of Rutgers' new running backs. He set a New Jersey state record by running for 7,589 yards with 80 touchdowns during his prep career. The 6-foot, 210-pounder ran for more than 2,000 yards in each of his last two prep seasons and gained 396 yards in one game.
"Every back is a little different, so we'll each bring something different to the table," Robinson said. "We're different kinds of running backs and have different strengths. We're going to try to get the job done together."
Replacing three starting offensive linemen, including All-Big East tackles Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa, might be a bigger concern for the Scarlet Knights.
"I think we're pretty committed to what we do," Schiano said. "There might be some subtle changes in the running game, but we're not going to change that much."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.