Marshall football: Backfield battle heats up
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall running back Kevin Grooms was out on the practice field before nearly everyone else Thursday afternoon, doing as much as he could on a left ankle recovering from a sprain suffered last week.
The sophomore watched his fellow backs - fellow sophomores Steward Butler and Remi Watson and redshirt senior Essray Taliaferro - shoulder the load while he's been sidelined. He trusts them to do that. He saw the proof last season. But the 2012 Conference USA Freshman of the Year doesn't like being a spectator.
"I've got a lot of faith in the running backs, but just to sit back and observe them going hard and getting better, it's kind of tough for me," he said. "I always motivated myself to want to go hard and practice. For me to sit back and watch is tough. But I know that when any one of their numbers is called, they can go in and make a play."
That's what makes the battle for the top of the Thundering Herd's running-back depth chart hotly contested and makes Marshall's backfield one of the deepest and most talented in the conference. With new running backs coach Thomas Brown leading the way, the group hopes that, from top to bottom, it can get even better.
And the foursome was pretty good last season, rushing for 49 yards per game more than the Herd did in 2011. Marshall jumped from 120.1 yards per game, ninth-best in the conference, to 169.2 yards per game, fourth-best in the conference. All four backs played their part.
Grooms had three 100-yard games on his way to a 737-yard, eight-touchdown season. Butler rushed for 166 yards versus Rice and finished with 500 yards and three touchdowns.
Watson rushed for his career-high 84 yards against Rice and scored seven touchdowns on the season. Taliaferro carried the ball just 13 times before the last two games of the season. But once injuries pushed him up the depth chart, he started against East Carolina and rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown.
"That's a good problem to have, but my biggest thing is to help those guys stay focused and compete with each other every single day," said Brown, a former Georgia running back. "One of the biggest things I've learned from being a player around other talented guys is that you can't take days off. It helps to have a ton of guys around you to help keep that fresh in your mind."
When healthy, every running back has received the opportunity to show what he can do. For the sophomores Grooms, Butler and Watson, that rookie year was an eye-opener in terms of learning the speed and physical nature of the college game. But, Watson said, they now come into 2013 a little older and a lot wiser.
"We've matured a lot as football players," Watson said. "We understand concepts a lot better to where stuff comes more naturally now, so our coach doesn't have to drill the basics of things into our heads. The fundamental part of playing running back is down pat in our heads now.
"We're becoming our own individual style of runners and individual style of players when it comes to pass protection and stuff like that," he added. "We're figuring out what works for us in the long run to make us better running backs."
While the competition this year is tough, the backs say it remains friendly. Last year was business - a foursome of backs either young or seldom used trying to earn carries in an explosive offense. This year, it's more fun, and Butler said the surplus should benefit all four of them.
"During the games, it gives us breaks so we can always stay fresh," he said. "That's really a good thing for us."
Brown said the carries won't stay even when the regular season begins. He wants two running backs out of the four to handle most of the load. He also wants to harness the group's speed. As dangerous as it was, Brown said it sometimes was uncontrolled, out of whack and out of place. Taliaferro appreciates the teachings of a coach who not only played in the SEC, but in the NFL as well.
If the group takes what Brown teaches to heart, Taliaferro feels the running game could become even more prolific this year.
"Our mindset is that we can't be complacent," Taliaferro said. "If we work harder than we did last year and expect more, the outcome is going to be more. We're shooting for 200 (yards) or more now."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.