North Texas Daily

Running back group making most of newfound opportunities

Running back group making most of newfound opportunities

October 10
19:49 2018

The North Texas football team will go into their second straight week without leading rusher Loren Easly who is out for the rest of the season after injuring his knee against Louisiana Tech.

Entering last week’s game against Texas-El Paso, the Mean Green were still trying to overcome the loss of Easly. The redshirt junior was starting to break out from a crowded backfield and emerge as a clear-cut starter for the team.

Before his injury, Easly contributed 386 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 74 carries, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He found recent success in his last two games against Liberty and Louisiana Tech, rushing for over 100 yards on 20+ carries both games.

The injury was a big blow for the team, but also for Easly as well. This will be his third major knee injury since high school, but head coach Seth Littrell is hopeful that he can bounce back from this latest setback.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get himself back,” Littrell said. “We’re praying for him and his family and I know that he’ll work hard again so he can put himself in a situation where he can come back out and succeed.”

As the season moves on the Mean Green will look to see who can replace Easly’s production in the backfield. Littrell will have plenty of options to choose from out of his running back group.

“It’s an explosive group… {and} I feel good about where we’re at, Littrell said. “If one guy goes down, I know someone in that group will step up.”

The first two candidates for the job so far have been sophomore running backs Nic Smith and DeAndre Torrey.

Both played majority of the snaps against Texas-El Paso in Saturday’s game. Torrey had 19 carries for 70 yards, while Smith rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Together the duo provided a balanced attack for the Mean Green offense.

For Torrey and Smith, they had to get used to having a lot more reps than usual in games. This was carried out throughout practice all of last week. The coaches emphasized overtraining them so that they can be prepared in moments where they are fatigued.

“We definitely have to take on more reps and we have to get accustomed to playing a full game and taking the reps that Loren took because I don’t think that we’ve fully played as much as he has,” Torrey said. “It’s definitely tougher. I felt like I got a little winded in practice so I stayed after and so did all the other running backs because we were a man short so everybody got extra reps.”

Both players looked ready in their first meaningful action of the season, thanks in large part to the experience of current running back coach Tashard Choice.

Choice said it was tough to lose a guy like Easly but he knew it was a “next man up” mentality from the rest of his group.

“That’s the mentality we gotta have in our room, next man up,” Choice said. “They just work hard and it’s always hard losing somebody that works their tail off, especially when he {Easly} was getting to a point where he was rolling and one of the leading rushers in our conference.”

For Choice, he knows what it’s like to be in a crowded running back room. He spent the early part of his NFL career playing for the Dallas Cowboys where he was part of a three-headed backfield with Marion Barber and Felix Jones.

During the 2009 season, when both Barber and Jones were out with injuries, Choice stepped up to fill the void in the backfield. He finished a week 3 game against the Carolina Panthers with 18 carries for 82 yards while hauling in four receptions for 36 yards and a touchdown. In his week 5 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Choice rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown on only 8 carries.

Choice would finish that season with 349 yards and three touchdowns on 65 carries, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He would finish third on the team in rushing that year and while Choice obviously didn’t have enough success as his counterparts, he made the most of his opportunities when his team needed it. Being a part of a crowded backfield was one of Choice’s biggest learning experiences while playing.

“It’s important for every rep that you get [because] if you get six snaps in a game, you want to make sure that they’re positive plays for our offense and our team,” Choice said. “I try to instill that in them guys because you could be a backup, then the next week you’re the starter. So all the reps that you didn’t get, you should make sure to pay attention to, because now is your time to get an opportunity to be evaluated on whether you can handle more.”

He continues to preach that to his position group by telling them to maximize each rep in practice and make the most out of them.

“Yeah he does, he tells us all the time how he had to split reps,” Torrey said. “That’s where we get that one play mentality from because you never know how many plays you’ll play in a game so you gotta make the most out of it every time.”

The hardest thing for a running back when it comes to sharing carries is trying to have that high level of consistency and maintaining momentum before being subbed out, something Smith has found a way to work through.

“It’s all about finding your rhythm fast but its kind’ve hard to do that when you gotta switch in and out so it’s really important,” Smith said. “You gotta know what plays make you go so if you got an outside zone and its one of your favorite runs, make sure you break it so you can get your motor going.”

For Choice, he believes it’s all about preparation and taking mental reps so that his players can go out and perform right when they sub into the game.

“It’s hard and that’s one thing you have to teach guys is that if they’re not getting reps, then get mental reps to see themselves, and then come back and watch film so if they’re placed in that situation, they’re not thinking… they’re just reacting and making plays.”

This is one of the things that made Choice so productive in his days in Dallas.

“Some people are rep guys while others can just watch it and understand it,” Choice said. “I was one of them dudes where I didn’t have to get a bunch of reps in practice. I just had to see what the guy in front of me was doing and I was ready.”

Neither running back received more than 20 carries in their game against the Miners, but Choice says that it’s because both running backs don’t need that amount of carries to be effective in games.

“With Nick and Dre, them guys don’t need many carries to have big plays so it’s an opportunity for them to both get the ball but they’re gonna have to be in shape and ready to roll,” Choice said.  “It’s a different approach from being backup to starter.”

The Mean Green will continue to have a running back by committee approach throughout the year, but Choice prefers having that bell-cow type of running back in his backfield.

“Since I’ve been with Chan Gailey out of college and playing {in the NFL}, it’s always one guy who steps up and is the guy,” Choice said. “In the running back room, you want an alpha dog… somebody who sets the example on how to practice, how to play, and is your guy {but} then you want the guy behind him to try and beat him out while learning from him.”

The running back group will hope to continue establishing a balanced attack within the Mean Green offense by making the most out of the new opportunities presented to them.

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Deondre Jones

Deondre Jones

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