Imagine the wonderful feeling of security Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones enjoyed in 1987.
The Cowboys offense was built around All-American running back Thurman Thomas, but Jones did not have to fret too much if Thomas needed a break or sprained an ankle. He had an ace in the hole. More importantly, he had an ace to run through holes.
Thomas' backup was Barry Sanders, who merely won the Heisman Trophy when he became a starter in '88. When you've got an insurance policy like that, why worry?
Southern Cal coach John Robinson probably didn't fret much either in 1979. Even though Charles White was ripping through defenses en route to winning the Heisman, he had an overpowering understudy in Marcus Allen, who would win the Heisman two years later.
Of course, not all backup running backs are going to be Heisman recipients, and that's not really necessary. An effective backup just needs to keep the offense moving in case a starter is lost.
Roland Sales is a prime example. Arkansas appeared overmatched against Oklahoma in the 1978 Orange Bowl, especially after coach Lou Holtz suspended his top two running backs. But Sales stepped in and rushed for 205 yards in a 31-6 Razorbacks victory that cost OU a national championship.
More recently, LSU freshman Justin Vincent emerged after Joseph Addai and Shyrone Carey were lost to injuries in back-to-back games midway through the 2003 season. Vincent played a significant role in helping the Tigers claim a national championship.
Depth at running back is always a big issue, and every season it seems like a backup has a big game or a great season in a time of need. Here's a look at some of the nation's top subs who could become heroes:
Rivals.com 2006 Preseason Top Backup Running Backs
1. Jamaal Charles, Texas, So. Calling Charles a backup is like suggesting the second bullet in a chamber is any less lethal. Also a track star, Charles averaged a whopping 7.4
yards per carry while rushing for 878 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. He had an 80-yard touchdown run against Oklahoma. There's no question about his ability. The only question is how long he'll remain a backup to senior Selvin Young.
2. Justin Forsett, California, Jr. Forsett proved his value a year ago when Heisman Trophy contender Marshawn Lynch was slowed by hand and finger injuries. Lynch was hardly missed. Forsett averaged 7.6 yards per carry while rushing for 999 yards. He exceeded 100 yards four times and had 235 against New Mexico State, 187 vs. Illinois and 153 vs. UCLA. What more do you want from a backup?
3. Felix Jones, Arkansas, So. He'll be starting early in the year because of Darren McFadden's injured toe, and Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt is thrilled to have him. Last season Jones rushed for 626 yards on 99 carries (6.3 yards per rush) and scored three touchdowns. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown. He rushed for 66 yards on 12 carries against USC, 66 yards on 11 carries against South Carolina, 62 yards on 10 attempts against Georgia and 71 yards on 10 attempts against Mississippi Sate. Jones had 100-yard games against Missouri State and Louisiana-Monroe. His rushing total was the third-highest ever for an Arkansas freshman behind McFadden – who was also a freshman last season – and Cedric Cobbs in 1999.
4. Kevin Grady, Michigan, So. A former five-star recruit, Grady did a nice job filling in for injured Mike Hart a year ago, rushing for 483 yards and five touchdowns. He has lost about 15 pounds to trim down to a sleeker – and hopefully fleeter – 216 pounds for this season.
5. Reggie Merriweather, Clemson, Sr. A starter in six games last season, Merriweather averaged 4.8 yards per carry while rushing for 715 yards and scoring seven touchdowns. His yardage and TDs ranked second to freshman James Davis. He has 1,441 career rushing yards. Davis probably will be the starter for the Tigers, but Merriweather - who led Clemson in rushing in 2004 - is a proven back who will get his share of carries.
6. Brad Lester, Auburn, So. Lester was a two-time SEC freshman of the week selection for his work against Ball State (91 yards and two TDs on seven carries, plus a kickoff return for a score) and South Carolina (53 rushing yards, two TDs). He had 32 yards on seven carries before straining his right groin in the first quarter against Arkansas. That injury forced him to miss the remainder of that game as well as games against Kentucky and Ole Miss. Still, he finished the season with 339 yards as the understudy to SEC rushing champion Kenny Irons.
7. Kolby Smith, Louisville, Sr. This 5-foot-11, 215-pounder was unlucky enough to arrive in Louisville the same year as Michael Bush, but he still has been productive. Last season he rushed for 523 yards and six touchdowns on 107 carries. He caught 18 passes for 196 yards. When Bush sat out two games last season, Smith rushed for 96 yards against Syracuse and 55 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers. The previous season he averaged 9.4 yards on just 37 carries. He has rushed for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns in his career.
8. Charlie Jones, Miami, Jr. When Tyrone Moss was injured in the eighth game last season, Jones stepped in and was a solid replacement. He gained 97 yards and scored a touchdown after coming in for Moss against Virginia Tech. Jones followed that up with a 90-yard effort against Wake Forest. He also had 88 yards against Virginia. Jones started the Hurricanes' last four games and rushed for 278 yards in that span. He finished the season with 507 yards and five touchdowns.
9. Antone Smith, Florida State, So. He rushed for only 188 yards last season, but that's mainly because Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington shared carries. Washington is gone now, so Smith - a speedy former five-star recruit - will share the load this year. Smith was named the Seminoles' most dominant offensive player in the spring, and some
observers in Tallahassee believe he'll be Florida State's next great running back.
10. Josh Allen, Maryland, Sr. In 2003 Allen rushed for 922 yards and had 533 yards in 2004 before dislocating his left knee in the season-finale against Wake Forest. That injury
kept him out all of last season, but he's fully recovered and will push junior Lance Ball, an All-ACC selection last year, for playing time.
Here's a look at new arrivals who could make an impact:
1. USC running back
The uncertain history of probable starter Chauncey Washington, who has battled injuries, academic issues and who hurt his hamstring in early practices, could give a number of young Trojans a chance to shine this season. Allen Bradford, Stafon Johnson, Emmanuel Moody and C.J. Gable are all vying for carries. It is likely that at least one of these backs – Bradford has been impressive in preseason drills - will have an impact for the Trojans in 2006.
2. Chris Wells, Ohio State, Fr. The Most Valuable Player at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Wells enrolled at Ohio State in January and made a nice impression in the spring game by rushing for a game-high 48 yards on 11 carries. The only reason he won't start right away is because of returning 1,000-yard rusher Antonio Pittman.
3. C.J. Spiller, Clemson, Fr. Elusive and fast, Spiller is a five-star recruit who averaged more than 10 yards per rush in high school. He's also a good receiver and excellent kick returner. Clemson is loaded at running back with James Davis and Reggie Merriweather, but Spiller has too much talent to stay on the sideline.
4. Kenny Wilson, Nebraska, Jr. Rivals.com ranked Wilson the nation's top junior college running back, and with good reason. He has good size at 6 feet, 220 pounds, runs a 4.4 and averaged 11 yards per carry while rushing for 1,229 yards for Butler County (Kan.) Community College last season. Sophomore Marlon Lucky probably starts, but Wilson will be a factor.
5. Ben Tate, Auburn, Fr. Maybe Auburn should revert to the wishbone. The all-time Maryland high school rushing record holder with 5,920 career yards and 2,886 single-season yards, Tate is fast and powerful. The biggest issue is getting on the field with Irons and Lester in front of him.