Running thin?

Published 10:36 pm Tuesday, November 15, 2011

East Carolina running back Reggie Bullock (middle) rushes against South Carolina during the Pirates’ 56-37 loss to the Gamecocks. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

GREENVILLE — The Pirates are preparing for a slugfest on Saturday night when they host Conference USA rival Central Florida, who like East Carolina, sports a 4-6 record and needs to win the last two games of the year to become bowl eligible.
Playing against a Knights defense that is No. 1 in the conference in every major statistical category, it is imperative that ECU establishes its running game to keep UCF on it toes.
“(The running game) will be huge, huge,” Pirates offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “Anytime you play a defense with their mentality and the history they’ve had and the success they had you have to be able to (run) and that will open things up.”
Who exactly will be doing the rushing is still in question as the Pirates running back unit is running a bit thin these days. While there is no doubt sophomore receiver turned running back Torrance Hunt will get a majority of the carries, the Pirates would like to have more than just one option. However, with leading rusher Reggie Bullock rehabbing from a thigh injury, Michael Dobson trying to recover from a concussion and the suspension of Alex Owah for the remainder of the year due to violation of team rules, the choices are slim for Saturday.
The Pirates are ranked 112th out of 120 FBS teams in rushing as they average a mere 99 yards per game on the ground. That number is no doubt dragged down by the fact that the offensive line, which was the third most inexperienced in the country at the start of the year, has been bit hard by the injury bug. The instability up front, along with the loss of Bullock for the last three games has taken a toll on the Pirates’ offense, but just how much it has affected the unit is unclear.
“We have quality players but we just lose the continuity, we’re not able to get in a rhythm,” Riley said. “We have had guys (positioned) for what they do well and all of a sudden that just changes. It’s been a constant change just about every week this year.”
Ideally, Riley would like to have a host of runners to use in various situations, but that’s just not been the case this season.
“If you look at the teams in this league that are playing really well offensively most of them have three good backs,” Riley said. “That’s something that, honestly, we haven’t had all year and that’s been disappointing. We felt like we were a pretty deep group going into the season but we’ve had one guy suspended and the other guys are banged up; that hurts.”
Dobson, who sustained a concussion during the first half of the team’s 22-17 loss to UTEP Saturday, is listed as questionable for the Knights game, while Bullock is listed as doubtful. If both sit out, that leaves tight end/fullback Zico Pasut as the only other back besides Hunt on the roster.
On Monday East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said that freshman WR Danny Webster may get a few carries, but on Tuesday Riley downplayed that notion.
“Maybe, we’ll see,” Riley said. “We think Torrance can do it and Zico is a fullback-type of guy who can carry the ball if needed, but we feel like Dobson is going to be able to play.”
Bullock has played in six games this year and rushed the ball 95 times, picking up 4.5 yards per carry to earn a team-high 428 yards and four rushing TDs. Hunt has 89 attempts for 347 yards (3.9 ypc), while Dobson has 51 carries for 198 yards (3.8 ypc) and three touchdowns.
For the sophomore Hunt, a scenario where he is the only playmaker in the backfield would have been hard to envision in the summer time.
“It never would have came to my mind,” Hunt said. “We had a lot of depth there and we knew we were all going to be playing this season.”
Hunt may not be all alone in the backfield on Saturday but it’s too early to tell. Riley felt positive about Dobson, but Bullock may be little bit further away from recovery.
“We feel going into this game that we actually have a chance to have all of them. That would be nice, we hope that’s the case,” Riley said.
If not, it’s possible that Pasut would see his role in the offense expanded. The sophomore got his first carry of his career against UTEP and was able to rumble forward for a gain of four yards.
“Coach Riley called a play and (quarterback) Dominique (Davis) checked out of it because he saw a hole,” Pasut said. “I took the ball, and it all happened so fast I couldn’t tell you what happened, I just took it for four yards.”
Pasut said when Davis audibled to a run for him he was taken aback.
“I looked at ‘Nique and give him a little look and he said ‘yeah, this you Zeke’ and I just took it and ran with it.”
The 6-3, 234-pounder who was recruited by former ECU coach Skip Holtz to play tight end said that he is open to getting more carries.
“Honestly, it would be great,” Pasut said. “I haven’t really done that much in my life but we’ll see. If they call it I’m ready for it.”