Pirates’ running backs are confident

Published 4:01 pm Tuesday, August 12, 2008

By By STEVE FRANKLIN, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — Each time Dominique Lindsay needs a little pick-me-up before practice, he reaches down to grab one of the many college football magazines stacked on the floor in the corner of his dorm room.
He flips to the 2008 East Carolina football preview and in almost every magazine it reads, “2008 Outlook: The big question is how will the Pirates replace all-everything running back Chris Johnson?, Does ECU have enough offensive weapons after the loss of Chris Johnson? Is there a running back capable of taking over for Chris Johnson?
It’s all the motivation the 5’10”, 220-pound senior running back needs.
Last season, Johnson became only the tenth Pirate in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season when he ran for 1,423 yards and an ECU record 17 touchdowns. He also set a single season record with 2,960 all-purpose yards and 24 total touchdowns, and left East Carolina holding eight career records, including ones for most career receptions by a running back (125), most all-purpose yards (6,993), and most touchdowns (44).
Pirates running back coach Junior Smith believes that load is too big for just one man to handle. But he also thinks that as a group, he has the talent to fill the void left by the 24th overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft.
Among those guys vying for carries this season will be Lindsay, whose 607 career rushing yards are more than anyone else on the roster, fellow senior Brandon Simmons, junior J.R. Rogers, and sophomores Jonathan Williams and Norman Whitley.
All bring their own flair to the running back position.
Lindsay is currently listed at the top of the depth chart because of his experience and ability to handle the football. In 146 carries, Lindsay has five touchdowns and just one fumble.
In short yardage situations, Brandon Simmons could be the guy. The 6’1”, 223-pound transfer from Elizabeth City State University, has impressed coaches with his ability to gain those tough yards between the tackles.
Another junior college transfer who has made quite an impression this offseason is junior J.R. Rogers. Rogers, who wrapped up a two-year career at Bakersfield Community College as the school’s fourth all-time leading rusher with 2,162 yards and 25 touchdowns, could be the big play back that Johnson was. The 5’11” junior redshirted last season, but after a season in the conditioning program, could be the fastest man on the team.
Of the young guys, Williams is the most-heralded back. Williams probably has the most potential of any of the running backs and after a strong offseason is poised to see the field a lot this season. He’s a gifted runner, who’s quick and physical and he’s ready to contribute more after averaging 6.8 yards per carry on 22 rushes last season.
The guy lost in the shuffle right now is Norman Whitley. Whitley was recently cleared to resume practice after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery for the second time since joining the Pirates’ program in 2006. A 5’9”, 187-pounder, Whitley is explosive out of the backfield and has a great knack for catching the ball.
Holtz and offensive coordinators Todd Fitch and Steve Shankweiler are so pleased with this group, that they’ve added offensive packages to get two running backs on the field at a time.
Regardless of who gets the ball, all the ECU running backs will be expected to contribute.