Following a season where USF’s rushing attack was fronted by former running back Marlon Mack, the Bulls’ offense has found success with two running backs, Darius Tice and D’Ernest Johnson, in 2017.
Quarterback Quinton Flowers and Mack led the offense last year with 1,530 and 1,187 rushing yards respectively, while Tice and D’Ernest are on their way to matching those numbers with a combined 691 rushing yards in four games.
“You see two guys competing,” coach Charlie Strong said Tuesday. “If one guy gets a big run, the next time, the next guy wants to get a big run. Those two guys have such a great relationship with one another.”
Operating as a running back by committee, the two aren’t competing for a job, but are pushing each other toward success. In USF’s 43-7 win over Temple on Sept. 21, both Tice and Johnson ran for 100-plus yards for the second consecutive game.
Listed as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart and as the preseason favorite to be the feature running back in offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s new offense, Johnson has been efficient with an average of 4.2 yards per carry, but not as much as Tice who averages 5.9.
Ranked 3rd in the AAC in rushing yards, Tice is almost a full year removed from an ankle fracture he suffered in a game against FSU last season and is playing at his highest level in his five-year career as a Bull.
Helping fuel his comeback campaign is the memory of what it was like to watch helplessly from the sideline the entire second half of last season with an ankle injury.
“I wasn’t there (when we lost to Temple) last year,” said Tice, who ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns against Temple. “To see my team lose, that built some fire up in all of us.”
Tice was granted an extra year of NCAA eligibility through a medical redshirt and has since stepped into a leadership role and taken a new approach to this season.
“The last play (you play) can always be your last,” Tice said. “That’s a reason I look at things kinda different than everybody else. We can’t ever get complacent.
“Our team, we’re getting better and better each week. We’ve got to go out and show that we deserve to be here.”
Johnson, who has run for 321 yards in 76 attempts, ranks 6th in the AAC in rushing yards and has also opened up as a passing option the past two games for the Bulls, catching his first TD two weeks ago against Illinois.
“We’ve just got to get better each week,” Johnson said, echoing Tice. “Everybody is hungry just to make a play.
Tice and Johnson will look to continue their dominance running the football when the Bulls take on ECU in Greenville, North Carolina on Saturday at noon.
The Pirates, who won their first game of the season Sunday against UConn, have given up 274.5 rushing yards per game this season and allow more yards of total offense than any other D1 school in the country.
Despite their futile defensive numbers, the Pirates are coming off of their first win of the season last week and their quarterback, Thomas Sirk, leads the AAC with an average of 275.7 passing yards per game.
“They changed defensive coordinators after the second game, so you’re just going in and trying to catch what he’s doing with a keen eye and make sure you’re seeing what he’s trying to accomplish,” USF Offensive Coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said. “Like anytime, we just focus on us and make sure we execute where we need to execute.”
In USF’s most recent victory, Johnson ran for 106 yards and tacked on two completions for 29 yards.
“We push each other,” Johnson said Wednesday. “If one does good, then hey, it’s the other one’s turn.”
Despite being the highlight of the offense last week, both of the Bulls’ rushers are quick to give credit to other parts of the team for their success.
“Best in the nation,” Tice said about the defense. “Those guys are playing lights out. That kind of effort is contagious is spread throughout the team.”