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Running back questions at BC

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Boston Sports Forum Commentary
Del N. Jones
9-13-04
 
     The undefeated Boston College Eagles have problems at the running back position.
     Actually, it’s hard to tell if they are good problems or bad ones with what has happened in the first two games of the season.
     Going into the spring knowing that they would have to replace the program’s all-time leading rusher in Derrick Knight, the Eagles had to deal with more inexperience at the position than in recent years. Sophomore Jeff Ross and his six carries in 2003 was the elder of a crew that had three freshman showing potential and unpolished skills.
     Both in spring and in the preseason scrimmages, Ross (Lowell), L.V. Whitworth (Milton), Andre Callender (Roselle, N.J.) and A.J. Brooks (Orlando, Fla.) each showed well enough to be considered for the full-time backfield job that carries so much responsibility at The Heights.
     There was a six-year streak of 1,000-yard backs at the program with BC tote board names like Cloud and Green making the Eagles proud in the NFL.
     So Tom O’Brien (as has been his way in seven years as the BC head coach) left the job open until the very end when the team began preparing for the opener at Ball State. That gave each hopeful every opportunity to claim the assignment.
     Ross and Whitworth’s power outlasted Callender and Brooks’ slashing styles, with Ross earning the starting nod in the opener with Whitworth scheduled to play early in that game.
     Done deal, right? Not exactly.
     Ross was unimpressive against the Cardinals; Whitworth was (129 yards on 21 carries) very impressive until a second half knee injury knocked him out of the game and out of the picture for the next four weeks.
     OK. No problem. Just promote Callender to back up Ross in the home opener against Penn State on Saturday, give him some carries to aide the starting Ross and give Brooks a look-see on a few as well.
     O’Brien’s equal opportunity plan was sound if each runner did what was expected, but Ross was ordinary again while the backup came in and was the unexpected engine on a 21-7 winning effort over the Nittany Lions.
     Callender entered in the third series (as planned) against Nittany Lions and ran with the authority of a starter. He rushed for 77 yards on his first 11 carriers (114 yards on 27 carries for the game), and if he wasn’t pulled for a spell during a second quarter drive that went drive deep into Penn State territory, Callender may have scored his first touchdown.
     Controversy? When Callender got hot behind the BC offensive line, Brooks relieved him – not Ross who started the game. To add more spice to this carousel, Brooks would fumble on the Penn State 10-yard-line in the second quarter, and later Ross loss the football as well PSU deep in BC’s territory, but was not ruled a fumble by the referees - compelling the Eagles to take a knee and settle for a 14-0 halftime lead.
     Ross, the poor guy, loss his starting running back spot twice in two weeks.
     "Jeff’s a good back, but he doesn’t have that extra burst that Callender does or that Whitworth did," said O’Brien, who named Callender the starter for Friday’s game versus Connecticut. "When you get playing a defense with the speed of (Penn State) you got to get that extra step or you’re running slow all day.
     "He’s a good back. He’s a solid back. He’s going to stay in the rotation, but these are just a little better and that’s why they are going to get more reps."
     For the Eagles to be a prosperous program they have to be able to run the football. The five bowl appearances in the last five years, and four consecutive wins, have all been on the strong legs of a two-pronged ground attack produced by top quality ball carriers and offensive linemen. The last time the Eagles failed to put a running back over 1,000 yards was in 1997. They finished 4-7 that year, which was also O’Brien’s first at The Heights.
     Even more so with a new quarterback to begin the 2004 season, BC still commit to the run to protect everything else it does – including playing defense. A roster with on 11 starters returning (five offense and six defense), it’s crucial to the success of the program.
     Now this fluid situation.
     Optimists will happily claim that the Eagles have more talent at the position than they have carries to accommodate. The glass half-empty brigade will lament a lack of consistency from one main guy – something O’Brien and his staff truly want when the games move to November.
     Right now the Eagles have a mixed bag of potential, inexperience and unpredictability. It’s better then no talent. In the first two games of the season, this unit has proven that it has plenty from a young group that only will get better.
     Saturday’s running back turn may have clarified some decisions for the Eagles. Then again, maybe not.
 
 

Commentaries by Del N. Jones are posted on Boston Sports Forum every Monday. His weekend columns can also be read in the Saturday/Sunday edition of The Patriot Ledger or at patriotledger.com.