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

season.

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

defenders.

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 –

like Baskin-Robbins.”

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

schemes.

”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

(yards).”

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

them.”

They also have to be tough enough to hold up against defenders

eager for the chance to flatten a smaller guy with a jarring

hit.

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.

15.

”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

guy.”

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.