Herd ground game returns talented group

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When the Marshall University Football team takes the field Sunday against Purdue University, six running backs will be wearing kelly green.
Seniors Remi Watson and Devon Johnson, sophomore Tony Pittman and freshmen Kelon Davis, Delvin Weems and Ellis Cain are the six running backs on the Herd’s roster.
The three eligible carriers returning from the previous season – Watson, Johnson and Pittman – combined for 2,351 of the 3,807 rushing yards and 24 of the 40 rushing touchdowns accumulated last season.
Johnson finished the season as a Doak Walker semi-finalist, one of the most coveted awards for running backs. The Richlands, Virginia, native amassed 1,767 yards, sixth in Division I football despite only having his number called 206 times.
Watson ended the season with 546 yards and six touchdowns on just 100 carries. The deep ball was the catalyst to Johnson and Watson’s yards per carry averages, as the Herd ran most of its offense through the spread.
The spread often forces opponents to a smaller defensive lineup because of the many receivers lined up opposite them.  When Rakeem Cato, who averaged 32.2 pass attempts per game last season, faked a throwing stance only to hand the ball to Johnson, the defense often was left helpless.
However, this is a new season. There is no Cato or Steward Butler, who was dismissed this summer after finishing 2015 with 798 yards on 107 carries and seven touchdowns.
With new quarterback Michael Birdsong at the helm and the one-two punch in Johnson and Butler gone, Marshall still plans to do what it did last year: take what the defense is giving them with a balanced attack.
Head coach Doc Holliday said the team’s plan on utilizing Johnson this season will vary on the opposing team’s defensive scheme.
“A lot of that depends on what we get, what the defense gives us,” Holiday said.
Holliday added that the team was able to provide a balance offensive attack last season.
“I thought the one thing that we did a great job of a year ago wasn’t planned, but we were almost perfectly balanced,”
Holiday said he would like to see his team do the same this season.
Running back coach Chris Barclay said he expects it will take the team some time  to adjust to Birdsong taking over the quarterback position.
“With a young or new quarterback, there’s going to be an acclimation period with just him getting used to the guys around him, getting used to the line and getting the game experience,” Barclay said. “Fortunately, Michael has played in games at a different level, but he has some game experience but not necessarily in this offense or in this environment.  I think, early on, we’re going to have to lean on the running game a little bit. “
Barclay said he is not concerned about the loss of Butler.
“I think this group could be just as talented if not more talented than we were last year,” Barclay said. “Steward certainly was a talented guy, but I thought Remy played well in the third spot.  There were some games, if I recall the Akron game, he was over 100 yards. In the ODU game, he was over 100 yards. He had a few good games. He probably needed to play more. He’s a productive guy and always has been.”
Barclay added that Pittman can also be an important piece to the Herd’s running game this season.
“He can play some good minutes for us,” Barclay said. “He’s really had a good offseason, a great spring and he’s had a great camp.”
Despite his inexperience, Davis has shown he may be able to carry some of the workload this season, Barclay said.
“He’s a freshman with great size and great instincts,” Barclay said. “So, he may be a guy that flashes this season as well. We feel good because we’re just as talented if not more talented than last year.”
Scott Bolger can be contacted at [email protected]