Smaller running backs packing punch in ACC
In a sport where coaches are always searching for bigger,
stronger, faster players, undersized runners are thriving in the
Atlantic Coast Conference with their big-play potential this
Running backs like North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard, Clemson’s
Andre Ellington, Virginia’s Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, and
Maryland’s Davin Meggett all rank among the league’s top rushers
while standing 5 feet, 10 inches or shorter. They’re versatile
enough to line up in the backfield, split out wide or catch the
ball in open space to create mismatches against slower
With their compact frames, they can hide behind offensive
linemen until reappearing suddenly through an open lane or run low
enough to maintain balance while bouncing off a hit.
”It’s definitely an advantage,” said Bernard, the first UNC
player to run for 1,000 yards in 14 years. ”Each size has its own
advantage. I just use that as mine.”
A year ago, running backs like Georgia Tech’s Anthony Allen (239
pounds), Miami’s Damien Berry (217), Virginia’s Keith Payne (255),
Virginia Tech’s Darren Evans (223) and Clemson’s Jamie Harper (230)
all ranked among the league’s top 10 rushers. Four of those runners
stood at least 6 feet tall and the average weight of the top-10
running backs was 216 pounds.
This season, only one of the nine running backs listed among the
league’s top rushers stands at 6 feet while the average weight of
those backs is 198. The biggest guy in that group is Miami’s Lamar
Miller, a 5-11, 212-pound sophomore who is second with 110.8 yards
rushing per game.
Virginia Tech’s David Wilson leads the league in rushing with
136 yards per game at 5-10 and 201 pounds. Bernard is third in the
ACC with 101 yards and is listed at 5-10 and 205 pounds, though he
says he’s really closer to 5-8 1/2.
Then comes Ellington (5-10, 190), Jones (5-8, 185) and Meggett –
a 5-9, 215-pound back described by Terps quarterback C.J. Brown as
”a bowling ball back there.”
Outside the league leaders, Florida State’s Devonta Freeman
(5-8, 200) and Wake Forest’s Brandon Pendergrass (5-9, 200) each
lead their teams in rushing yardage.
While coaches would love to have a big power back with breakaway
speed, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he’s focused on taking
advantage of every available weapon.
”I just want the best player,” Swinney said. ”I want someone
who when we hand it to him, he stretches the field, breaks tackles,
catches the ball. They come in all shapes and sizes. … I think
you have to have a combination, guys that bring different flavors –
North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers was the Tar Heels’
defensive coordinator while his team faced all five of the
top-rushing bigger backs in 2010. He said the versatility of the
smaller backs have made them more valuable in pass-friendly
”That’s became a big factor in college athletics: how many ways
you can get explosive plays,” Withers said. ”You’re starting to
see a little bit more of the smaller receivers in the slots now
because they’re able to get the ball and run after the catch. It’s
the same thing with the running backs, (finding) a guy that can
miss a tackler in space and go not only 10, but go 20 or 30
They’ve all done that. Bernard has two touchdowns of at least 55
yards. Ellington has three touchdown runs of at least 35 yards,
including a 74-yarder. Jones has a 47-yard rushing touchdown and a
78-yard receiving score. Three of Parks’ touchdowns have been at
least 19 yards, while Meggett has a 20-yard TD run.
To listen to Parks, it’s about more than just speed.
”I think we get lost,” Parks said. Defenders ”look in the
backfield and they see us, and then they don’t and then they see us
again. It’s kind of like a little hide-and-seek game sometimes to
They also have to be tough enough to hold up against defenders
eager for the chance to flatten a smaller guy with a jarring
Last year, Swinney relied on Harper’s physical running to
complement Ellington’s shiftier style. With Harper in the NFL and
several similar-sized backs on the depth chart behind him,
Ellington – nicknamed ”Lil’ Bit” – has seen his carries increase
from about 13 per game last year to 19 this year.
He missed most of the final five games of last year with a foot
injury, and missed one game with an ankle injury this season. Even
when healthy, he knows he must stay fresh enough to show the same
burst that helped him run for 212 yards against Maryland on Oct.
”Those bigger backs, they can take the pounding throughout the
game,” Ellington said. ”It’s rare that a smaller guy like myself
can take the pounding for every game.”
Regardless, Bernard said he has always chosen to look at his
smaller frame as an advantage. He can even chuckle about opposing
defenders who trash talk during games about his size.
”For me, being a small back, I love being in the open space,”
Bernard said. ”I love the freedom of going 1-on-1 against a
AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Va., David
Ginsburg in College Park, Md., Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, S.C., and
Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla.,
contributed to this report.