August 8, 2007

Two for one

On Sunday - orientation day for the Boilermakers, who'd just reported for camp a few hours earlier - players stood up and introduced themselves.

Jaycen Taylor rose and introduced himself as "the running back." Not to be outdone, Kory Sheets stood and fancied himself "the starting running back."

Such is the dynamic these days between the two juniors, each vying to be "one" in Purdue's one-back offense.

Regardless of who starts - Taylor is currently No. 1 - both players will play a lot, as they did a year ago, when the two were essentially co-starters.

But that doesn't mean both players aren't eager to see their name atop the depth chart.

Sheets started the entire regular season for the Boilermakers in 2006, but Taylor pried from him the starting spot prior to the Champs Sports Bowl. Taylor remained No. 1 in the spring, when he was plagued by an ankle injury, and retains that standing as camp moves into full swing.

But Sheets has not taken kindly to the demotion.

"That's what's been on my mind this whole summer," Sheets said, "being the No. 1 running back. That's all I think about.

"Once you put the pads on, it's time to practice what you've been preaching. That's what I'm going to try to do."

Coming off an outstanding spring, capped with a 105-yard, two-touchdown spring scrimmage, Sheets got off to a good start this summer, when, according to running backs coach Joel Thomas, he dedicated himself to the weight room more than ever.

After dropping 15 pounds through the course of last season, falling to 180, Sheets put 20 back on in the off-season, entering camp at a noticeably more stout 205 pounds, which it's hoped will allow him to better handle physical poundings.

"But I don't want to take a pounding," Sheets quipped. "I want to give it."

While his body's thicker, so's his skin, Thomas said, suggesting Sheets has become stronger mentally.

"Once he gets coached up hard on something, he doesn't take it personally," Thomas said.

Sheets, though, has taken personally the move to the second-team offense, it would seem. He's always been a fairly emotional player, and has been very outspoken about his desire to reclaim his starting position.

He does not believe it's an issue where he runs the risk of investing too much of himself.

"Football's an emotional sport," Sheets said. "If you're not emotional, this is the wrong sport for you.

"We can get emotional about it, but it never passes a certain level where we don't like the other person."

For Taylor's part, he's an opposite personality type in that he seems to take a level-headed approach to things.

"I tend to just look at the bigger picture in what's best for the team," Taylor said. "If I start, then the coaches figure that's best for the team, or if Kory starts, they figure it's best with him.

"It's not so much of a competition, as it is just a friendly rivalry. Whoever's on top, it won't matter. We're still going to help each other out for the long run."

Though he was limited in the spring after twisting his ankle, Taylor is also coming off a solid summer. Like Sheets, he augmented his body, adding a good five pounds of muscle, he said.

Taylor may not be as vocal about the competition, but that shouldn't be construed as him being indifferent.

"The other day, I'm up (in the football office)," Thomas said, "and Jaycen's up there watching film on his own. I didn't tell him to come watch film."

The one thing that's clear is that Purdue likely won't be hurting in the backfield, no matter who's on the field for the Boilermakers' first offensive snap on game day.

Though consistency wasn't exactly his calling card as a sophomore, Sheets finished with very solid numbers. He rushed for 780 yards, averaging just less than five yards on 158 attempts, while also catching 28 passes for another 213 yards. He rushed for 11 touchdowns - nine in the first five games - and caught two others.

He didn't make as many big plays as he'd have liked, but hopes his 65-yard TD run in Purdue's end-of-spring scrimmage is a hint of things to come.

Taylor, arguably the most pleasant personnel surprise of the entire season, carried 113 times for 677 yards - a robust average of six per carry - and four rushing TDs. He caught 26 passes for 261 yards and one touchdown.

The former junior college transfer was lauded for his consistency and reliability. He didn't lose yardage on a carry until Week 10 and he fumbled just once, at the tail end of a 46-yard catch-and-run against Indiana. He was also one of Purdue's best special teams players and was considered early in the season for a role playing on defense, also.

With two attractive options to pick from, Thomas believes he's in a can't-lose situation. But during the off-season, he talked to other coaches to seek input on dealing with such competitions. One of those schools contacted was Auburn, which a few years ago had the "problem" of having two NFL first-round picks - Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown - in its backfield.

And Thomas can draw from his own experience. As Louisville's running backs coach in 2003, Thomas had Lionel Gates, Eric Shelton and Michael Bush, now playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders, respectively.

Thomas said Taylor and Sheets' relationship is no cause for worry, but noted the importance of being honest with players in such situations, when one player may be getting more playing time or notoriety than the other.

"As long as you're up front with both of them, and there's no surprises, you'll be OK," Thomas said. "… They've been mature about the situation. Ultimately, it's a team game and they know that.

"I just want the best guy out there for our team."

That could be one of the two getting more carries than the other, or a near-50/50 split.

Both players know that whoever isn't the starter isn't going to get lost at the end of the bench.

"It's just more of a title," Sheets said. "But it makes you feel good to say, 'I earned this.' At least that's how it is for me."


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