Assessing USF’s running backs

Johnny Ford is USF’s leading rusher with 197 yards and three touchdowns. While Ford’s speed is essential to USF’s offense, coach Jeff Scott and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. want a back who can specialize in pass protection. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The Bulls’ offense has no shortage of quickness and explosiveness in its backfield.

Johnny Ford and Kelley Joiner, USF’s leading rushers with 197 and 152 yards, respectively, have proven they have the skill and quickness to produce. 

The two have scored four of USF’s seven touchdowns this season.

While that big-play ability is great to have, the Bulls are yearning for a change of pace, a back that can be more physical. 

A back that can handle the bulk of the pass protection responsibilities.

Coach Jeff Scott spoke to the value of Joiner and Ford, but also vocalized the team’s need to identify a big back that can handle pass protection.

“What you know with Johnny and Kelley, you’re going to get everything they’ve got,” Scott said. “They’re just a different [type of player], they’re a slasher.

“There’s no doubt we need one of those bigger backs to really kind of step up, and be able to help us, and I think with at least three [running backs], adding one of those big guys to Johnny and Kelley, I feel like we’ll have enough to be able to do what we want to do this year.”

Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. mirrors what Scott wants to see from the backfield — some beefy backs who can block.

“I think we need to continue to have some explosive runs, but obviously we got to be a little more physical in pass protection,” Weis Jr. said. “We got to continue to improve on that, continue to find a bigger back to put in, maybe when Kelley or Johnny are a little bit tired, and [we] want to get a little bit [of a] change of pace guy, at some point in time.”

The Bulls have a couple options to choose from when looking for their bigger, more physical third running back.

Junior running back Darrian Felix could be an answer, if not for his injury woes.

“Darrian Felix is a guy that’s just not healthy, he’s trying to get healthy, he’s just not healthy,” Scott said. “He’s able to get in there and do some things … pass protection.”

If Felix can get healthy, he could offer the skill set that the coaching staff is looking for.

Perhaps the most intriguing option is redshirt freshman Leonard Parker, a former defensive back who made the change to running back prior to the start of the season.

The 5-foot-11-inch Plant High School product weighs in at 205 pounds, approximately 25-30 pounds heavier than both Joiner and Ford. 

Parker’s size coupled with his physicality and defensive experience makes him a prime candidate to take over on pass protection.

From what Weis Jr. has seen, Parker has impressed thus far and the future is bright for him.

“We’re definitely pushing for Leo to get to that position, Weis Jr. said. “He’s still new to the position … still learning some things, and trying to figure that out.

“But he’s a big-bodied kid, he’s very physical running the football, so we’re hoping that he can get up to speed and figure it out … he can be able to be that bigger back for us.”

Despite his size and growth, Parker simply does not have the experience needed to step in and play a big role at this time, Weis Jr. said.

“He just hasn’t had quite as many reps as we probably needed him to be ready to play at this point in time,” Weis Jr. said. “But hopefully, that’s getting close to where he can be ready to perform for us.”

Parker only has one game with experience at running back. He came in late against Cincinnati, where he carried the ball seven times for 51 yards. He ended up as USF’s leading rusher against the Bearcats.