Backfield Overhaul

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Butch Davis' first training camp highlighted three young running backs splitting repetitions in the backfield. Eight months later, three different tailbacks have emerged on the scene for spring practice, highlighted by feature back and local talent Greg Little.

North Carolina finished the 2007 season ranked 107th nationally in rushing offense, totaling 99.2 yards per game on a paltry 3.0 yards per rush average. Johnny White, Anthony Elzy and Richie Rich entered the fall as the three primary candidates to replace veterans Ronnie McGill and Barrington Edwards. But by season's end, Rich had already been moved to the defensive secondary, and White and Elzy were on the proverbial hot seat.

Davis expressed his displeasure about the running back situation following a 31-27 loss to N.C. State in which the Tar Heels rushed for 12 yards on 20 carries.

"I don't see that – there's no evidence of that right now," Davis said in November, when asked if White or Elzy could possibly become the running backs of the future. "This offseason there are several changes that we're going to make in all three phases of our football team, and certainly probably the one single biggest emphasis going into spring practice will be some kind of clarification and an emphasis on running the football."

Little moved to running back from his wide receiver spot the following week against Georgia Tech, and tallied 89 yards on 24 carries. Then Little provided a splash during the season finale against Duke, gaining 154 yards on 26 yards for two touchdowns, including the game-winning 25-yarder in overtime.

The 6-foot-3, 210-pound sophomore entered spring practice as the feature back, and after a three-month stint on the top-ranked Tar Heels' basketball team as a walk-on, is ready to secure his starting spot.

"I was off on some angle points and missed a couple of holes, but it's something that I've got to get back into," said Little, who also indicated that he is getting nearly 80 percent of the reps with the first unit. "I'm fully committed to football now, so I'll be back weight training over here and getting some extra film in, trying to get back and really contribute a lot."

Running backs coach Ken Browning pointed to Little's ability to grind out yards after contact and to make things happen with the ball in his hands as reasons for his emergence in the backfield.

"If the only yards that you're going to get are the ones that are blocked for you, you're not going to be quite good enough to win a championship," Browning said. "That was the primary thing. We also think he has some ability as a receiver, obviously. He's got power, and he's got some instincts as a runner. Probably in his life, he's played more as a running back than as a receiver, anyway, so I think it's a natural position for him."

Joining Little in the backfield is sophomore Ryan Houston (145 yards on 44 carries in 2007) and red-shirt freshman Devon Ramsay. Browning indicated that his biggest challenge this spring would be finding enough opportunities for those three players to get comfortable at their position.

"I'm just trying to cram as many reps in for them as we can get," Browning said. "Some of the things that you don't get, regardless of your athletic ability, if you don't have background in terms of repetitions to understand what can happen and so forth… You just get better. You play faster and a lot better when you're not thinking as much and when you've seen something 100 times as opposed to 20 times." Houston displayed flashes of potential last season, and Ramsay drew rave reviews as a scout team back in fall practice.

"Those guys are great talents, so there's some competition in the running back room," Little said. "That keeps everybody focused in practice and working hard. Nobody gets to slack off, so it keeps us honest."

White has since followed Rich to the defensive secondary, and Elzy has moved over to join Bobby Rome at the fullback position.

"We feel like a lot of those guys are good football players," Browning said, referring to the White and Rich moves. "We're trying to find a way to get our best players on the field – that's basically what it boils down to. And we felt like there were some areas in the secondary that hopefully a couple of those guys could help us with, in terms of some depth."

And while Little, Houston and Ramsay will garner the bulk of the attention this spring, there's a fourth running back prospect that won't arrive in Chapel Hill this summer – highly-touted recruit Jamal Womble. The 5-foot-10, 220-pounder rushed for 1,787 yards and 20 touchdowns on 170 carries during his senior season at Sierra Vista (Ariz.) Beuna.

"He didn't play with a very particularly talented offensive line in high school – he made a lot of yards on his own," Browning said of Womble. "The things that impressed me the most about him were his work ethic in practice, he is a very intelligent player – he's a kid that learns fast – and he's a power back. He's put together and he's got good quickness. And I think he's got great hands. I don't think he's got good hands, I think he's got great hands."

But for now, it appears as though Little is determined to claim sole rights to that first-string tailback position for the 2008 season.

"When August rolls around and its time for that first game, I'm looking to come out full speed ahead," the Durham, N.C. product said.

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