Tulane, ECU adjust to loss of star running backs

Published 10:02 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2008

By BY BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — After taking down No. 15 Virginia Tech, and mashing the eighth ranked Mountaineers, the Pirates will hit the road Saturday to start their Conference USA schedule against a feisty Tulane team.
Heading into the 2008 season, both the Green Wave and the Pirates struggled with similar dilemmas: how to replace a guy who not only carried the football regularly, but the entire offense.
East Carolina coach Skip Holtz decided the task of replacing Chris Johnson, who led the NCAA in total yards last season, was too big for one man and delegated the responsibility to a group of running backs.
So far this season the Pirates have relied on senior Brandon Simmons and a pair of sophomores in Jonathan Williams and Norman Whitley to carry the load.
While the unit hasn’t shown the explosive, game-changing element that Johnson brought to the table, it has certainly been effective.
Simmons, Williams and Whitley have combined to help lead the Pirates to an average of 150 rushing yards per game, tallying 3.6 yards per attempt.
East Carolina can also expect those numbers to go up as the season goes on, being that the Pirates have already faced what might have been the two toughest team’s on their schedule.
Tulane’s second-year coach Bob Toledo is hoping his crew can have the same impact.
The Green Wave will have to find some way to get by without star running back Matt Forte and his 2,127 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns he produced a year ago.
The Bears’ second-round pick (144 overall) in the 2007 NFL draft, Forte finished second in Conference USA in total yards with 2,420, right behind Johnson’s 2,960.
As of now, the leading man to fill Forte’s shoes is junior running back Andre Anderson. The 6-0, 211 pound tailback came into the season with only 45 carries for 161 yards and two scores.
Like ECU’s Simmons, Anderson is backed by a pair of younger runners in freshmen Albert Williams and Nathan Austin.
Green Wave sophomore quarterback Kevin Moore said that not having Forte around will alter the team’s offense a little bit, but expressed faith in his replacements.
Matt was a once in lifetime player. Last year we needed to put more emphasis on the run because we needed the ball in our best player’s hands,” Moore said. “We are going to have be a little more balanced on offense (this year) … Matt’s not here anymore, he’s gone on to the NFL to have a great career. But we have Andre and he is going to be a great tailback, plus we have two freshman who can really fun the ball.”
Austin said the effort to fill the void left by Forte will be a collective one
I don’t think we have one guy (that can take Forte’s place), but as a unit we will be able to produce,” Austin said. “Were not trying to be the next Matt Forte, were just trying to play our game … I’m trying to do the best that I can do.”
At 5-11, 178, Williams is a bit more of a speed back, while the 6-2, 226-pound Austin has potential to be a solid all-around back.
In its first game of the season against No. 13 Alabama, the Green Wave backs got off to a modest debut as they rushed for 86 yards on 36 attempts in Tulane’s 20-6 loss.
Anderson got 13 carries and produced only 32 yards, while Austin made the most of his five attempts by tallying 24 yards. Williams collected 18 yards on his five attempts against the Crimson Tide.
Toledo’s trio of backs have plenty of room for improvement, and just like the East Carolina crew without Johnson, they should not be overlooked come Saturday.