The USF Bulls enter the 2016-2017 season leaning heavily on their running back group to help carry the load again. The three headed monster at the University of South Florida includes Marlon Mack, D’Ernest Johnson, and Darius Tice. These running backs could easily be called the best trio in college football right now, as running Backs Coach Donte Pimpleton said in 2015 “I’d put my three against any three in the country,” and, which I guarantee he still thinks that, plus people can believe that, as the running backs always show up to play. He is not the only coach on the team to feel the same way, as Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive line coach Darren Hiller believes so by saying it himself “They can play a lot of football for a lot of people in the country.”
First off, last year was the best Bulls’ offensive season ever, especially the running game that finished number tenth in the nation. The Bulls ran the football at least 60 or more percent of the time. The offense was led by Quinton Flowers, but the running backs gave Flowers the chance to shine, as they took tons of stress off his first year starting. The Bulls offense ran the ball a total of 592 times for 3,205 yards, while averaging 246.5 rushing yards per game and finding a way to score 28 rushing touchdowns.
Interestingly, Marlon Mack has the chance to be a sleeper in the upcoming Heisman race, as he was right up there with the best in college football. Now, he does have a legitimate chance on being an All-American and an all-American Athletic Conference player for a third straight year. Out of all of the running backs or players in the nation, he has been named to three watch lists entering the 2016 season that includes the Maxwell, Doak Walker, and Walter Camp Awards. Limited players get nominated for such awards. He also has the chance on becoming the Bulls all-time rushing leader in the school’s history.
The Sarasota native finished the 2015 season with 1,381 rushing yards and by averaging 6.6 yards per carry, plus finding the end zone eight times. Mack is coming into this season with a chance to break records, improve his draft stock, and see a conference title game, which one record is becoming the Bulls all-time rushing leader, as he only needs 309 rushing yards to pass Andre Hall. Mack spoke about the future accomplishment at USF’s media day and said “I don’t try to focus on that too much. Just get ready for the season and get our wins up, that’s what our focus is.” Expect Mack to try and run the ball 220 times for about 1,750 yards and scoring in double digit numbers.
In addition, D’Ernest Johnson is also a Junior like Mack and that he is listed on a watch list for the Paul Hornug Award. Funnily enough, Johnson is Mack’s Robin, while Mack is Johnson’s Batman. These two work well together and have different styles of play. Johnson is a versatile back by being able to catch the ball out of the backfield and to return kicks and punts. Johnson’s value has been recognized by fellow HCC student Bryan Chase, which he said that “Johnson is one of the reasons that the opponents fear the Bulls’ offense when he is called in the game due to his versatility.” Versatility is a weapon that offenses love to use against defenses to make the drive flow with ease.
Now, his 2015 season was a success with a good amount of yardage picked up in a different fashion than Mack. Johnson’s hard work landed him with 1,251 all-purpose yards, which was third on the team. Most of his yardage came from either catching or returning the football. He ran the ball 307 yards on 71 carries for 4.3 yards per carry, and caught 26 passes for 356 yards that averaged out to 13.7 yards per catch. His five touchdowns came off catches (4) and running the ball (1). He returned a total of 588 yards between punts and kickoffs. As for a fact, he picked up 26.8 yards per kickoff return and that helped him finished third in the conference and 16th nationally. Expect Johnson to pick up a total of 700 return yards, 500 yards in receiving, and rushing the ball for 400 yards.
Next, Darius Tice is the most seasoned back on the roster, as he has seen coaches fly left and right out of USF. Tice is great insurance if Mack or Johnson go down with an injury. The Senior is the team’s short-yardage and goal-line back, which is a vital role on the team. Tice finished last year with four scores, which is the first season in his collegiate career that he found the end zone. He ran the ball 88 times for 460 yards, which comes out to a 5.2 yards per carry.
Finally, the team averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Expect the group to average 6.0 yards per carry, as they just keep on trucking, which will lead the stampede to the conference title. This group has a tough task against most of the American Athletic Conference and outside conference opponents they face, as most of those teams are very good at stopping the run.