A Versatile Lot

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With O-Week underway and the freshmen having missed their first installation meeting of camp earlier Monday evening, Owls coach David Bailiff had the newcomers strap on the pads and practice extra reps after the vets had been dismissed. That move provided an opportunity.

Freshman tailback Charles Ross had been an enigma prior that moment. Whispers of his athletic blend of size (6-1, 205) and speed (Ross anecdotally ran a sub-4.4 40 at Junior Day during a previous visit) preceded his arrival on campus, but his camp performance failed to meet the hype. He showed all the signs of a freshman unfamiliar with the offense: he was tentative in the backfield, appearing to guess which hole to exploit rather than burst through it with confidence. Then, with one handoff and explosive dart, Ross showcased his capabilities.

Owls quarterback Nick Fanuzzi had lingered behind and positioned himself on the sideline so that he could catch a glimpse of the action. After Ross accelerated around right tackle and down the sideline, Fanuzzi gave a knowing nod. It was as if he were waiting for that moment to unfold, and when it did, Fanuzzi had his expectations met. The bloated depth chart might prevent Ross from getting another such opportunity, but a lasting impression was delivered.

Five tailbacks of varying experience levels are sharing reps for the Owls, and with the opening of the second week of camp comes a clearer picture of what each tailback brings to the table. 

"It can create some diversity for us," Owls running backs coach Darrell Patterson said. "We have some young men that have good hands, we have others that have good overall skills.

"We can do some things."

How the staff will best exploit four tailbacks is a process worth observation. Sophomore Tyler Smith (5-7, 195) is decisive and elusive, a bundle of compacted muscle capable of hiding behind towering linemen before sprinting through an available crease. Smith was designated the starter coming out of spring drills, and while he has excelled throughout camp, Smith has logged plenty of idle minutes on the sideline watching the rest of the tailbacks go to work.

Redshirt freshman Shane Turner (5-9, 175) is lean and swift, and his startling ability to change direction snared the attention of the Owls' fandom during Saturday morning's scrimmage. Turner is the least physical of the tailbacks, but his speed in the open field is an exciting asset.

Fifth-year seniors Marcus Knox (5-10, 215) and Jeramy Goodson (5-8, 180) bring toughness and versatility individually, and leadership collectively. Knox is a willing blocker, and after shedding weight in the offseason, picked up a step that makes him a deceptive runner. Goodson, who missed a week of camp with a bum ankle, has exceptional hands and, as a high school quarterback, supplies the necessary element of surprise via the halfback pass.

Despite the individual skills of the quintet, five tailbacks and one football make for fuzzy math. Two-back rotations are once again the rage in the NFL, but a five-back rotation presents quite a challenge. The Owls haven't carved their final plan in stone, so the tinkering will continue.  

"I had the opportunity to play against the Pony Express," Patterson said of the early-1980's SMU tandem of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. "James was the inside banger and Dickerson was the speed outside guy. We don't have that particular mentality, but we do have young men that can come out of the backfield and catch the ball and line up at wideout. (Defenses) have to account for so many formations and the ability these running backs have."

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Not that I want to go back to the triple option days, but a strong running game can open up so many other opportunities for an offense. I'd love to see the Owls turn that talent loose.

Owl-88: My concern is how best to turn that talent loose. Five guys getting reps isn't developing the one or two you will need to carry the load. It's a tough pickle, though, because the future is Ross and McGuffie. How do seniors like Knox and Goodson help you this season, and where do youngsters like Smith and Turner fit in? - MK

Charles Ross sounds like a player to watch!

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