With eight spring practices in the books, and some of USC's veterans slowed by injury or academic concerns, running backs coach Robert Gillespie has had plenty of time to work with some of South Carolina's younger and less experienced ball carriers.
Overall, he says, it's been a productive spring thus far.
"We have a couple of guys that are banged up, but it's given a lot of younger guys some opportunities to get the reps they need," Gillespie said. "It's been pretty good. The guys are showing toughness."
Senior Mike Davis, who had 518 rushing yards in 2007, has been limited with a hamstring injury. But his misfortune has given sophomore Brian Maddox and true freshman Eric Baker more carries in practice and a better chance to develop.
Gillespie's biggest challenge, he says, has been integrating the young running backs into the passing game. In Steve Spurrier's offensive system, the running backs are expected to be decent pass blockers and catch the ball circling out of the backfield.
"We want to get those (younger) guys into as many pass protection situations as we can," Gillespie said. "But we also want to give those guys the ball."
Davis enters the 2008 season with 1,658 career yards and 16 touchdowns in three seasons. He's averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 46.1 yards per game.
Because of Davis' experience, Gillespie isn't too concerned about his lack of reps this spring.
"We know what Mike can do," Gillespie said. "But we still have goals for him to get better. He has some things he needs to get better at. Once his hamstring feels a little better, we'll get him out here."
After two years of serving as the No.2 running back behind Cory Boyd, Gillespie says Davis must again learn to be 'the guy' like he was in 2005 when Boyd served a season-long suspension.
"He's had Cory Boyd to kind of lean on and bounce things off of," Gillespie said. "But now he has to be the focal point of the backfield. Just from a maturity standpoint, can he be the leader on and off the field and be able to carry the load for the entire game?"
Davis fell out of favor with the coaching staff in the second half of last season, carrying the ball a total of just 35 times in the final six games, an average of 5.8 rushes per game. He had only four carries in the final two games while Boyd had 36 carries.
"It was a maturity thing," Gillespie said. "That's something we're trying to get him better at this spring. Last year, we had another guy we could rely on. But he did some things off the field like class attendance and things like that that carried over to the football field. This spring, he's doing a better job going to class and being at all the workouts. Hopefully, it will carry over into next fall."
Gillespie must find someone who can replace Boyd's production catching the ball out of the backfield. Boyd had 36 receptions in 2007, 117 in his career.
After carrying the ball just six times for 20 yards last season sophomore Brian Maddox is hoping for more carries this upcoming season. However, he had just 12 yards on eight carries in last Saturday's initial scrimmage.
Still, Gillespie believes he has the physical tools to make an impact.
"Brian Maddox hasn't had the chance to really show what he can do," Gillespie said. "We wanted to (last fall), but we weren't able to because the game didn't dictate it. Now is our chance as a staff to evaluate him and see what kind of player he's going to be.
"He's going to be a between-the-tackles power guy with just enough finesse to make the defense miss."
Maddox rushed for 1,750 yards as a senior at T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C. in 2006, so Gillespie is looking for him to regain the form he showed as a prep star.
"He's a kid that wants to be great, so he does all the little things we ask him to do" Gillespie said. "As I said, we wish we could have gotten him into some game situations last year. It would have sped up his learning process. He knew this spring was going to be key. He started off slow, but he's starting to get his legs and starting to get his confidence up. The staff is starting to see the things he did n high school."
Eric Baker originally signed with USC at the same time Maddox did (February of 2007), but spent a semester at Fork Union Military Academy in Chatham, Va. last fall to help him obtain the necessary test scores to qualify under NCAA standards.
"Eric came in with a sense of maturity," Gillespie said. "He's not your average guy fresh out of high school. He's been through a lot. Military school was tough on him. He came here with a focus and drive."
Baker enrolled at USC in January and right now it appears to have been a good decision. With his shiftiness, he's battling Davis and Maddox for the eye of the coaches.
"He has a long way to go, but he does some good things," Gillespie said. "He's getting better every day at a faster rate than the average freshman would. He comes from a run-oriented offense, so running the ball isn't a problem for him. He does a good job with the ball in his hands. Eric has little more 'make you miss' to him. We think he can get the ball on little swing passes and make one guy miss and turn it into a big play."
But, Gillespie warns, like most freshmen running backs, he still has much to learn with pass protection and picking up blitzes. But it's certainly possible he can achieve a level of comprehension to give the coaches enough confidence in him to put him on the field in a game situation.
"Mike Davis did it in his first year," Gillespie said. "He picked it up and he's had a pretty decent career here. It's my job to coach him up to where he can get those things. Of course, we don't want to throw the whole playbook at him and put everything on his shoulders. Hopefully we can bring him along during the season."
Baker, a graduate of Edward White High School in Jacksonville, led the Sunshine State in rushing with 1,703 yards during his senior season in 2006.
The trio of Davis, Maddox and Baker appears to have the edge on Bobby Wallace and Taylor Rank.
Wallace, listed as senior in the spring media guide despite sitting out last season with a broken collarbone, has seen his progress slowed by injuries and academic woes.
He had a 20-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage in last Saturday's scrimmage, but, with his eligibility in question, he's currently one of three players required to attend academic counseling sessions during the week rather than participate in practice.
Gillespie said Wallace's absence from the majority of the practices this spring has been disconcerting, as well as an impediment to his progress.
"I don't like to get excited about guys I can't depend on," Gillespie said. "He knows that. I'm not saying anything he hasn't heard. Everyone wonders why (Wallace doesn't play more). We have to coach the guys that are here. We have to coach the guys we can depend on. Hopefully, Bobby will get in line and do the right things. If he does that he'll have the opportunity to play."
Rank has been nearly invisible since rushing for a career-high 101 yards against Florida Atlantic in 2006. He had just two rushes for five yards in 2007. Most of his action has come on special teams.
With at least three running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Rank may see limited duty again as a junior.
Now that the reliable Lanard Stafford has departed the program, the fullback position has become a battle this spring between Pat DiMarco, Bryan Kingrey and converted linebacker Yvan Banag.
"Patrick DiMarco is a tough kid. He's smart. He's a more athletic guy in terms of catching the ball out of the backfield," Gillespie said. "So, we're able to do some things we couldn't last year. All of our fullbacks are serviceable and should help us."
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