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The more backs, the merrier
Cyrus Lawrence began his freshman year at Virginia Tech in 1978 with dreams of becoming the next Earl Campbell or Larry Csonka: workhorse running backs who never seemed to take a play off.
Lawrence didn't know he'd actually surpass both Campbell's and Csonka's workload — and in so doing became a walking (well, hobbling), talking advertisement for the advantages of a running-back-by-committee approach. Lawrence didn't have the luxury of having a solid No. 2 running back to give him a breather, like backfields at both Tech and Virginia have today.
If anything, Lawrence's accomplishments and the toll it took on his body serve as a cautionary tale to modern-day coaches. He carried the ball 843 times for 3,767 yards in his Tech career, both school records that still stand 27 years after his last carry ... make that the last carry of his career. He wasn't drafted by a National Football League team and never had a carry in the NFL because his knees were too torn up.
He had 78 more carries than the legendary Campbell had at Texas. Csonka, who Lawrence admired with the Miami Dolphins, never had more than 220 carries in an NFL season. Lawrence had 271 carries in his junior season and 325 as a senior. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
"You couldn't give me the ball 15 times a game, because if I only got it 15 times a game, I wouldn't even warm up," said Lawrence, a Franklin resident. "I think I averaged about 30 carries a game in high school, so it was nothing unusual for me to carry the ball 25, 30, 35 or 40 times a game. It was whatever it took to win a game. To be honest with you, it never fazed me. I never thought once in any game I played that I carried the ball too much. I enjoyed it."
While Lawrence considers his banged-up knees to be an inevitable part of football and holds no ill will toward then-and-now Tech running backs coach Billy Hite, Hite seriously adjusted how he handled his backs. From '83-86, Maurice Williams had a total of 550 carries for Tech, while Eddie Hunter had 466 carries. Both backs are still among the top 10 all-time rushers for Tech.
Since Lawrence's 325-carry season, no Tech running back has come near 300 carries again, except Kevin Jones in 2003 (281 carries for a school single-season-record 1,647 yards) and Branden Ore last season (276 carries for 992 yards).
"I felt like I cost Cyrus Lawrence his pro career by running him that many times," Hite said. "I also think the game has changed so much. You want to be 50/50 if you can — 50 percent run, 50 percent pass. Back in (Lawrence's) days, we were about 75 or 80 percent run."
This season, Tech will play at least four running backs: Jahre Cheeseman, Kenny Lewis, Josh Oglesby and Darren Evans. A possible fifth back could be freshman Ryan Williams. UVa will give both Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson significant carries. It's not really running-back-by-committee. These days, it's more committee-by-design at Tech and UVa.
"We have never considered two (backs) to be a committee," UVa coach Al Groh said. "We used Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman on a regular basis, both in the game. When we've had one that was clearly way out in front, then we've featured that particular player. Both (Peerman and Simpson) now have proven that we have kind of the equal capabilities of the Pearman-Lundy days. It's probably (not) in the best interest of both (Peerman and Simpson) if we took all of Cedric's carries or Mikell's and multiplied them times two."
UVa hasn't had a back go over 227 carries since '99, when Thomas Jones ran 334 times for 1,798 yards, both single-season school records. Injuries to Peerman and Lundy have had something to do with their limited carries, but Peerman is on board with the idea of running with Simpson in the same backfield. One advantage is that it helps both backs stay sharper on blocking assignments when they're in the game.
"I think I've grown to understand it's really hard to take every carry in the game just because of the speed of the game," said Peerman. "It's so much faster than high school. It was a growing process for me, just getting used to that, but I think it definitely works out good when you need a breather."
Only 26 running backs in D-I had more than 250 carries last season, led by Central Florida's Kevin Smith and his 2,567 yards on a ridiculous 450 carries. A total of 31 running backs managed to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing on fewer than 250 carries.
Lewis, who had 57 carries for 205 yards last season, studies backfields of teams from around the country more than the average player.
"When you see the guys with close to or over 1,000 carries in college, how many years do you think that knocks off their NFL career?" Lewis said. "It has a lot to do with the talent coming up now, too. You have guys all over now that have run for 1,500 or 2,000 yards in high school. Now, you get them all in one group in college. Look at Clemson. Look at Georgia. Sometimes, Georgia has three or four running backs that are going to have 70 yards or so a game, but still, there's three or four of them that are going to have 70 yards. That makes a big difference."
Clemson will provide the perfect example of the two-headed monster in the backfield this season. Running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller will share carries for the Tigers.
Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring discovered the importance of having multiple backs ready to go into a game in Tech's '96 season-opener at Akron. Tech came into the game ranked No. 15, but almost saw high expectations snuffed out early.
Tech back Marcus Parker was suspended. Running back Ken Oxendine separated his shoulder. The Hokies wound up using Marcus Gildersleeve, who had played more wide receiver than running backand freshman Shyrone Stith to pull out a 21-18 win. Stith had 21 carries for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
"You've always got to be prepared for the worst," Stinespring said.