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Attrition leads to battle of the backs

In USF’s 27-3 International Bowl win against Northern Illinois in January, former USF running back Mike Ford rushed for 207 yards and looked primed to play a big part in USF’s future plans.

Less than two months later, Ford was kicked off the team for a rules violation. Then, at the start of spring practice, senior Jamar Taylor left the team, and while Mo Plancher’s eligibility was still in question, the running back position was a major question mark.

“It was unfortunate for those guys to have to leave the team for their situations. Things happen, you just have to move on and come together with the guys you have,” sophomore running back Demetris Murray said. “We had (true freshman Marcus) Shaw come in and step up, (redshirt freshman Bradley) Battles came along real big this summer and spring. We’re just trying to get it together as one big core.”

Though Shaw, Battles and Murray all are unproven in games, USF coach Skip Holtz said that with what he’s seen in fall camp, he’s optimistic with the depth at running back after the tumultuous offseason at the position.

Plancher, who was granted a sixth-year of eligibility in the offseason, has been limited in practice with a shoulder injury, giving others an opportunity to prove themselves.

“It’s gotten Murray and Battles and the guys behind him an awful lot of work,” Holtz said. “(Mo) should be fine. We’re just being protective with him to try and develop depth.”

Holtz said that if Plancher was at full strength, he’s the clear-cut starter, but the competition behind him is close. He said if the season started today, he would give the nod to Battles, who came on strong at the end of fall camp after Murray had a big spring.

With the depth taking shape, versatility is another aspect of the running game. Shaw and Battles, the small, quick types, will play a role this season because of their speed and big play ability, while Plancher and Murray bring the downhill running approach.

Holtz said it’s going to be hard to keep any of the four off the field this year.

“Shaw and Battles are the two that have an explosive gear,” Holtz said. “Those are the two that can bring something different to the table. Mo is solid, steady, reliable, hard running, low center of gravity – him and Murray are very similar from that standpoint. Battles and Shaw have a little bit more juice for the big play from the tailback position.”

“All four will definitely play,” he said.

Unlike last year’s spread, where quarterback B.J. Daniels was the featured runner, Holtz’s offensive philosophy suggests a more traditional approach, with more touches for the running backs with Daniels under center.

Daniels led the team with 772 rushing yards on 175 attempts last season (Plancher was second with 129), but Plancher said the coaching staff has incorporated the running backs more.

“They’re using us a lot more this year – running the ball, catching the ball, everything,” he said.

Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said the running game is by committee, but a healthy Plancher seems to be who the coaches will rely on the most.

“As a sixth-year player, I think he’s got the all-around game savvy that he can handle all situations: run, pass, catching,” Fitch said of Plancher, who led USF running backs with 581 yards last season. “We’re going to need all three of those guys to be there.”

Murray said the competition has been beneficial for everybody.

“One guy or not, every day you come out here, there’s competition – from practices, to scrimmages, to whatever we’re doing,” he said. “Everything’s on film and coaches grade it daily. You just got to come out and practice hard every day.”