It was FIU’s fifteenth day of training camp and Tim Harris Jr. waxed confidence, hands on his hips, as he spoke with the media about his running backs. The fourth-year position coach has seen a lot of talent under this South Florida sun. But this year, he has an assertion.
“They have an opportunity to be special,” said Harris.
The Panthers have four returning tailbacks that each may be talented enough to individually lead a backfield in another system, but instead, head coach Butch Davis suggests they will all be key cogs of a committee. This is a group that could surprise some defenses in Conference USA.
Let’s start with Napoleon Maxwell. The redshirt senior was efficient in 2017, averaging 5.9 yards per carry on 477 rushing yards behind Alex Gardner, who graduated last year. Maxwell added five rushing touchdowns too.
His senior counterpart, Anthony Jones, is poised for a breakout year. He impressed in 2016 with 562 rushing yards and five touchdowns before sitting out his junior year with an injury.
Junior Shawndarrius Phillips is the bruiser of the group. Standing at 5’-11” and 225 pounds, he put together a solid campaign in 2017 with 469 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
Sophomore D’Vonte Price is 6’-2”, 195 pounds and a speedster. He made the most of his 15 carries in 2017, rushing for 131 yards (an impressive 8.7 yards per carry). Naturally, Price had to adjust to college football in his freshman year and will seek an expanded role this season.
“We have a back for everything we need. We have passing backs, running backs and short distance backs,” said Price.
Holes to fill
Taking the reins from Gardner, FIU’s all-time leading rusher, is no small task. Neither is replacing the leadership their last quarterback provided.
“Alex McGough made the game easy for us. Now, we’ve increased our knowledge as running backs. We don’t have McGough anymore,” said Phillips.
“We have someone who’s there to replace him, but we know it helps to increase our knowledge. It’s making us work harder to know our job and more, just in case we have to correct anyone. We’re thinking like quarterbacks now.”
A throwback for Butch Davis
FIU’s second-year head coach has a talented backfield and he knows how to use it.
“I was blessed at another job where I had a lot of really good talented running backs. Whether it was Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Najeh Davenport, they could come in situationally, we could use them at their best talent or you could just play them all,” said Davis.
That ‘other job’ Davis refers to was when he piloted the University of Miami program from 1995-2000. Portis, McGahee and Davenport went on to have long and successful NFL careers.
“I remember watching those games back in the day. Watching the rotation go in and out of the game. You’d watch the game and say, ‘Wow. He’s playing four backs.’ That wasn’t common back then,” said Maxwell.
“But with Butch Davis, that’s the thing. You saw it in his program. Him coming here and knowing all the backs we had, that was something I was looking forward to: having our legs fresh and keeping the guys on the field that can play.”