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A change in philosophy

There was a time when running backs carried the mail. They toted the rock. Cue Keith Jackson lowering that rumbling drawl to draw out "workhorse."

Running backs bulled through the line. They moved the pile. At Ohio State, Woody Hayes loved the idea of "three yards and a cloud of dust."

Times have changed. Backs don't even worry about how many rocks they tote. It's all about "touches."

He's got to have 25 touches a game.

How many touches?

We didn't get him enough touches.

Offensive football has turned into touch football.

There are two elements to running philosophy. There is knocking defenders out of the way, and there is making people miss. It used to be that the fullback did the former and gained "the tough yards." The tailback did the latter. As tailbacks got bigger, they did both.

In the last five years, more and more coaches gravitated to spreading the field. The notion of lining up and moving the chains has taken a backseat to spreading out and getting the tailback -- or the wide receiver or whoever gets the "touches" -- into the open field.

If you're looking for an explanation why, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks has a suggestion.

"Ask Ricky Williams," Brooks says, referring to the Miami Dolphins tailback who, at age 27, retired last month. "The game has become so physical that a running back takes a pounding."

In his Heisman Trophy season of 1998, Williams averaged nearly 33 carries per game at Texas. That same year, Jamal Anderson of the Atlanta Falcons broke the NFL record for carries in a season with 417, an average of 23 per game over an 18-game season. The following year, Anderson blew out a knee and was never the same.

"He took a beating," says Brooks, the defensive coordinator and, briefly, the interim head coach on that Super Bowl team. "Running backs' careers are short-lived. The guys who are running and hitting them are bigger, faster and stronger than they've ever been in the history of the game, and there are more of them. The impact is greater. The bruising is more severe than ever.

"In college, you don't have a guy who is prepared to take that load," Brooks says. "I'd love to have a guy who I can hand the ball to 25 to 30 times a game and gains 100 yards. That's a hard thing to come by."

However, 1999 seems to be have been the tipping point. In that season Ron Dayne of Wisconsin won the Heisman Trophy and broke the career rushing record that Williams had set the year before at Texas. Dayne finished with 6,397 yards over a four-year career in which he averaged 26 carries per game.

In 1999, 11 of the top 20 rushers averaged at least 25 carries per game. In the four years since, the number of rushers to carry the ball that much has plummeted. From 1995-99, 10 rushers averaged 30 or more carries per game. There has been only one, TCU's LaDainian Tomlinson in 2000, to reach that level of durability in the four years since.

It must be said that, for a generation, offensive football has been moving away from the running game. In 1974, at the height of the triple-option craze, Division I-A teams averaged 52 rushes per game. By 1984, that had fallen to 45 per game. In 1999, the average dipped below 40 for the first time. Last season, it was 39.6.

So teams are running less. Individuals are running a lot less. Playcallers are not only spreading the field, they're spreading the workload. At Wake Forest, Jim Grobe has a lot of traditional, physical football in his playbook.

"I got four running backs, and I wouldn't care which one of them played for us," Grobe says. "In our offense, we've averaged getting the tailback the ball 37 times. We haven't found one guy yet who can carry the ball 37 times. Guys are so big and physical, it's hard to get a guy to play 11 or 12 games if he carries that much. Overall, you don't want to take the chance that when he gets tired, he'll get knocked out for a season."

The tailbacks who do the sharing aren't always so sure it's the best. Auburn seniors Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, one of the best pairs of tailbacks in the nation, each considered leaving early for the NFL. They decided to stay because they like playing together.

And yet. . .

"Last year, it was tough for both of us because we kept getting out of rhythm," Carnell Williams says. "This year, I think we have a good game plan to make sure that we're both in on all the plays and on the field."

The game plan includes, yes, spreading the field, which Auburn will do more of this season with new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Clemson coach Tommy Bowden embraced this style of offense at Tulane in 1997, where he hired little-known Rich Rodriguez, now the head coach at West Virginia.

"Everything now is share the ball," Bowden says. "I will get three guys eight to 10 carries a game. That's the way it's going to be. With our system, they'll get equal playing time. It gives you so much more flexibility with (backs who can run and catch like) the Warrick Dunns, the Travis Minors."

But the old truths of the game still gnaw at Bowden. He didn't like the fact that the Tigers failed to rush for 2,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. He didn't like the lack of balance in an offense that last season, threw for 3,687 yards and rushed for 1,780. Then Bowden decided that he was beating himself up unfairly.

"What I have to realize," Bowden says, "is that a lot of the flare screens that we throw are (the same as) runs. That's a toss sweep. That will help my thinking. The toss sweep is now that. You're not going to get a guy greased up in 20 carries and have them knock out the last 10. I guess they can at Ohio State, Wisconsin."

Or at Michigan, where Chris Perry carried the ball 51 times for 219 yards and a touchdown in the Wolverines' 27-20 victory over Michigan State last year. Or at Texas, where senior Cedric Benson embodies the qualities that Bowden brought up.

"Cedric, like Ricky, gets better in the fourth quarter," coach Mack Brown says, comparing Benson to the Longhorn legend.

Benson gets the bulk of the Texas carries, although with quarterback Vince Young an excellent runner as well, there are even fewer rushes available for other backs. Benson averaged nearly 22 carries a game last season. No other Longhorn running back averaged more than four.

There aren't many Bensons out there, though. The trend is obvious: more and more coaches believe that fresh backs in the fourth quarter can achieve the same goal. More and more offenses are converting, and there are fewer and fewer offenses in which a back will get 25 or 30 carries a game. The beat -- and not getting a beating -- goes on.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.