Running backs coach Jason Swepson was spoiled last year, enjoying the efforts of two senior leaders, Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene, at the tailback position. This season is going to be much different. Swepson's contingent of ball carriers boasts only seven starts, all of which belong to junior fullback Taylor Gentry, but that hasn't dampened his excitement for the upcoming season at all.
According to the former Boston College running back and wide receiver, the lack of game experience is one of the biggest challenges facing the Pack's backs this year.
"[They look] pretty good but we still have got a lot to learn, we still got to get better," he said. "[The hardest part] is learning the playbook, having a great understanding of what you're supposed to do in every situation and, [where] you truly get that is in games; but they're working hard, trying to do the right thing and studying their playbooks. I'm anxious, just like they're anxious, to get into the games."
Swepson said the leadership voids left by Baker and Eugene have been adequately filled by redshirt junior Curtis Underwood and Gentry, the two elder statesmen among Swepson's group.
"Obviously, Gentry has played in a lot more games than Underwood but Underwood has played in some big games," the coach said. "I think that his experience is going to help him be a leader and, not only at the running back position, but, hopefully, for the entire team."
Gentry, a junior, has played in 25 games during his career and started seven times despite joining the team as a walk-on out of Leesville Road High School. Although he has yet to record an official rushing attempt, he has been a reliable blocker, has 17 career catches for 155 yards and a score; and was named the 2009 Special Teams Player of the Year. Swepson reflected back to the 2008 campaign and said the 6-foot-2 and 250-pound thumper separated himself as someone to keep an eye on immediately.
"His first practice, I remember him coming out here as a walk-on freshman, laying the wood and setting the tone," Swepson said. "Coach [O'Brien] noticed that instantly and he was on scholarship before I knew it. He's just tremendous.
"He's played and he's got a great work ethic, probably one of the best on the team. Young kids see that and it's instant respect. I heard Curtis say it this morning, 'he only has one speed and that's full speed.' If you're going [less than full speed] against Gentry, you can get hurt. He knows how to bring it."
Underwood, who enters his fourth season in Raleigh from Lackawanna, N.Y., played in 18 games and totaled 200 yards rushing in his first two seasons before redshirting last season. Although that is not the normal chronology for a football player to redshirt, Swepson has no doubt that it has improved the 5-11 and 216-pound back. Although he has a mere 51 rushing attempts in games, he received a load of game-like carries while challenging the starters last season en route to being named the offensive scout team Player of the Year.
"I think it helped him tremendously," the coach said. "He got a chance to go against the number one defense on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays so he had three games days in a week. I think that helped his durability."
The coaching staff is far from handing Underwood anything, though. Swepson knows running back needs to be among the deepest positions on the roster, especially if the first three years in Raleigh are any indication. A rash of injuries are what forced Underwood to see the field as a true freshman back in 2007.
"As we all know, we have gotten banged up at that position over the last few years so I told those guys, 'four, five and six on the depth chart have to be ready. Your name could get called in the first game, in the fifth game and, as well as know, it could get called in the 12th game like Jordan Monk.' I think that was a great story for Jordan and I use that story to tell my guys, you better be ready."
True sophomore James Washington is pushing Underwood for carries, according to Swepson, and things are far from settled at the running back position. The speedy Washington appeared in each of the first six games last year before a knee injury prematurely ended his season. Washington scored three touchdowns against Murray State but is just beginning to tap into his potential.
"James is a young kid that has played a little but for us and has a chance to do some special things," Swepson said. "I'm just looking forward to when the season starts so I can see what these young guys can do."
In addition to Washington, those young guys include promising freshmen Mustafa Greene and Anthony Creecy, as well as spring game standout Travis Leggett, a redshirt freshman. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Barnes is recovering from injury but could also make an impact once he returns to full health. Leggett, a native of Chadburn, N.C., stands 5-11 and weighs 217 pounds; and rushed for 129 yards during the spring showcase.
"Travis had a great spring game and really showed up when the lights were on," the coach said. "When he gets his opportunity, I know that he'll help this team."
However, few things can be as encouraging as the two star rookies preforming up to expectations while helping each other on the field as competitors and off the field as close friends. Creecy, who hails from Durham, stands 6-0 and checks in at 196 pounds while the Irmo, S.C. native, Greene, stands the same height but weighs six pounds less.
"We've got tremendous talent and, when you got that kind of talent, you just hope they understand they have great talent and they do all of the right things off the field because that's probably the only thing that will hold those two back," Swepson said of his freshman duo. "They love to practice, they love to put the helmet on. When you love to play the game, it doesn't matter whether it's 200 degrees out or 20-below, you're still going to show up and want to play. We just have to make sure that they are doing the right things off the field so that their talent can truly shine.
"I like how they work together. This summer, they bonded well, became great friends and I think they are pushing each other to be successful. At this point, it's still too early to tell what kind of style they have. T.C. is obviously a little bit bigger than Mustafa but that doesn't mean anything as far as power or speed or anything; that will showcase itself on game day."
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