Southern Miss fans have grown accustom to watching #25 lining up in the backfield for four years. Gone is school’s all time leading rusher Damion Fletcher. Fletcher put up amazing numbers, had a stellar career for the black and gold, and will be admired and remembered for his consistency and effort he gave for his school.
In his career, Fletcher rushed for 5,302 yards on 1,009 carries including 44 touchdowns. Often oohhing and ahhhing the crowd by throwing his body around with reckless abandon, Fletcher is a great story one who didn’t have many looks out of high school but made a national name for himself at USM.
Also gone is graduated senior Tory Harrison. Harrison provided a great change of pace from the style of Fletcher, and in his career rushed for 1,620 yards in 305 attempts. He also had 24 touchdowns during his time in Hattiesburg.
Stats aside, these two provided steady leadership, an understanding of the offense, receiving threats, and even a tandem lined up at quarterback at times. The years and time they put in for the black and gold can not be overstated.
In the upcoming 2010 season, it is now time to hand the reigns to another leader who can fill the void of losing two senior running backs.
How much production can USM expect now out of this position? What should Golden Eagle fans expect to see out of the new crop of running backs waiting in the wings?
In a spring interview with running back’s coach Pat Washington, GEP.com heard these same questions coming out of his mouth as he considered the tall task at hand.
“First thing is we have to replace two guys who have been here for a very long time in Fletcher and Harrison,” he said. “The other thing is that we have to be real consistent this year. I felt there were times that we were not as consistent out of that position as we needed to be.”
Consistency will be sought in the form of four guys who are chomping at the bit to get out on the field and show they are capable of being the every down back.
The bulk of the load falls on senior V.J. Floyd. Floyd has earned his opportunity to be the leader of this running back core waiting patiently for his opportunity behind Fletcher and Harrison for three seasons. In limited opportunity, Floyd has certainly shown his ability. Last season, however, he only saw 17 attempts in which he rushed for 59 yards.
“Floyd is the only guy that has been here a while, so he is the guy everyone is chasing at this point,” Coach Washington said of the spring depth chart. “Now he has his chance, and the good thing is that he is taking over. He is playing smart, fast, and physical, has made good decisions, and has been our leader in the film room as well.”
For those that have not seen Floyd play, he comes with a grind-it-out style that will not wow or flash. Floyd knows the system, and he knows what it takes to be successful at this level. While not one to break loose and hit the home run as Harrison was capable of last season, he is one who will take care of the football, make smart decisions, provide the right read in pass coverage, and can earn the tough yards.
He is short at only 5’10, but he is tough and physical. He is certainly able to pick up those two or three yards needed for a big third down play.
While Floyd may not provide the flash, USM does have at its disposal this year the ability to put some guys in the backfield that do possess that home run threat.
In sophomore Tracey Lampley, USM has a game changer that is a potential to score every time his hands are on the ball. Expect this offense to get the ball in his hands as well in as many ways as possible.
“He has impressed me from the first day he stepped on this campus,” Washington said of Lampley. “He is just the type of guy that you love to coach. He has been one that wants to start, and wants to be in there all the time and he takes it home with him.”
We expect to see Lampley lined up in the backfield, used often in screens, reverses, and any way to get him into space. Quick and explosive, look for Lampley to be lined up all over the field this season. He can provide the flash to the steady Floyd.
Behind these two is a lot of potential without game experience. In sophomore Desmond Johnson and red shirt freshman Kendrick Hardy, USM has two guys who have all the ability for great things. However, between them is only 7 rushing attempts in a regular season game. Johnson saw those attempts in the opening game against Alcorn St.
Johnson has been somewhat of a question mark because of his struggles with holding onto the football in practice and scrimmages. He, like Lampley, possesses great bursts of speed and quickness, along with the ability to take it to the house on every touch.
Can he be counted on in front of a packed house when the stakes are high? Though there is still work to be done, Coach Washington sure thinks so.
“He, in the spring, was one of the most improved guys we had on the team,” he said with optimism. “He worked extremely hard in the off-season, and is winning a lot of the competition battles we had in practice.”
This is good news for USM fans. Expect Johnson to get his opportunity to impress early, but to also be on a short leash. If he can be consistent, the Golden Eagle offense will be able to see another dimension in his ability to go to the next level. In fact, I think Johnson will be one of the pleasant surprises of the offense this season.
The hammer is Kendrick Hardy. In Hardy, Southern Miss has a guy that can drop his head and run over someone to get those tough yards. Coach Washington describes him as “raw and physical.” He certainly has a lot of work to do in preparing to be an every down back USM can count on, but he does have the talent to do so.
For now, expect Hardy to be a situational back until he learns the complications of the system, and just like a possession receiver, expect him to be used in 2nd and 3rd and short situations. With a good summer and a determined attitude in the fall however, Hardy very well may be in the mix for more playing time.
What we like about this group is the variations they can throw out at you. Whether it is the steady Floyd, explosive Lampley, quick and elusive Johnson, or hard hitting Hardy, this group, perhaps as a group of four, could more than make up for the loss of two of USM’s more steady backs in the past.
In fact, this could be a position that causes a lot of headaches for defensive coordinators of USM opponents.
The other bit of good news is that USM’s running back’s coach spoke often of how these guys are always pulling for each other. They understand that together they can be far more than they can be alone. While the competition will be fierce for playing time, these guys all have the more important goal in mind, a conference championship.
Stay plugged in to GEP.com as we bring you the other questions that we are looking ahead to as we consider how Southern Miss can return to the top of the Conference USA this season.