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Ohio running backs Ryan Boykin (left) and Donte Harden (right) pose for a portrait yesterday in Peden Stadium. Ohio has started spring practice, and is holding its annual spring game this Saturday. Boykin and Harden are competing for a starting spot. (Alex Goodlett | STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Football: Running back hopefuls race to fill grad's void

If Ohio published a classified ad for its latest vacancy on the football field, it might read something like this …

Wanted: running back. Must be complete package. Explosive speed, quick cuts, sharp lateral vision — the works. Strong hands for ball control and receiving passes are mandatory. Those unwilling to pass block or fight for inches on third and fourth down need not apply. Experience is a plus. Send resumes to offensive coordinator Tim Albin.

With a week remaining before the end of spring practice, seven Bobcat running backs have thrown their helmets into the race to replace outgoing rusher Vince Davidson.

“It’s going to take the rest of the spring for it to iron out who’s where, but I’m pretty happy with progress,” said Albin, who also serves as the running backs coach.

Davidson started all 13 games for the Bobcats in 2010, as he racked up 549 yards and six touchdowns. He also caught eight passes for 110 yards and a score.

But Davidson was by no means the only rusher Ohio used. Nearly three-quarters of the team’s 2,129 yards on the ground came from 11 other players, including three other running backs, two quarterbacks, four wide receivers, a tight end and a punter.

Even within the corps of running backs, the starting rusher did not accumulate a majority of the yardage. Returning players Donte Harden, Ryan Boykin and Dallas Brown combined for 605 yards on 123 carries — an average of almost a yard more per carry than Davidson.

“Since we lost Kalvin McRae three years back, we’ve had the running back kind of by committee,” said Albin, who also serves as the running backs coach. “I’ve played for sure two guys, sometimes three in a game.”

No Ohio player has run away, so to speak, with reps and rushing yardage since McRae tallied 1,434 yards on a whopping 294 carries in 2007, which was his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. No other player had more than 70 rushing attempts on the year. McRae ended his career with 4,398 yards, first all-time on the Bobcats’ rushing list and fifth-best in the Mid-American Conference.

Harden, now a redshirt senior, was a true freshman during McRae’s final year in a Bobcat uniform. He had five carries for 26 yards in two games before being granted a medical redshirt in 2007. He enters the 2011 season with 974 career rushing yards.

“He’s missed some time due to injury, so we’re leaning pretty heavy on Donte,” Albin said. “We’ve got a pretty good feel about what he brings to the field talent-wise.”

This season, Harden traded in his No. 28 jersey for former quarterback Boo Jackson’s No. 8.

“I’ve been trying to get a single digit since my freshman year of high school, so I figure, ‘why not my senior year?’” Harden said, adding that the swap also mimics the sleeker look of Ohio’s offense.

“Everything’s going slim. I had to drop the ‘2’ and go with just ‘8.’”

But the change in jersey is the only figure Harden looks to decrease. A monumental number highlights his 2011 goals:

“I’m looking forward to a MAC Championship, a bowl game and (the first) thousand-yard rusher since Kalvin,” he said.

Despite Harden’s experience, Albin said other backs such as Boykin, Brown and redshirt sophomore Beau Blankenship have shown promise during spring practice and could get carries in the fall.

“We help each other out,” Boykin said. “We critique each other. It’s all friendly. It’s all good.”

But at the same time, Boykin said he knows execution matters. As second-nature as keeping two hands on the ball might be, every fumble or misstep might lead to an opportunity for another rusher.

“You’re going so fast, you’ve got to know everything because if you don’t, the next guy will and your spot will be taken real quick,” Boykin said.

As much as having depth helps, Albin said he hopes one player will lead the unit with consistent performances.

“We haven’t had a guy that just says, ‘I’m the guy. I’m an every-down back, and I can stay fresh,’” he said. “I’m hoping that we get a guy that does that, then we’ll play one guy.”

And Albin might have a guy in mind.

“If someone takes it over — Donte — then he can have it.”


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