Bret Bielema at his post-spring press conference Wednesday afternoon:
"Every championship season I've been involved in, we've been a team that has used three running backs."
Folks around the SEC and the nation found out last season what kind of talent Arkansas had in its backfield with sophomore Jonathan Williams and true freshman Alex Collins. And if those people knew anything about Arkansas looking ahead to 2014, it's that these two would again be the focal point of the Razorback offense the season after combining for nearly 2,000 yards on the ground.
And then the spring game happened.
To be more specific, Korliss Marshall happened. He ran like a man possessed, racking up 99 yards and two scores on just six carries. But let's not act like we didn't know he was capable of shredding defenses before. We knew he was an explosive back from the small sample we got of him last season, but his performance in the spring game was more than just a nice game. It was a statement.
Marshall now joins a terrific set of backs that RB coach Joel Thomas labeled "1A, 1B, and 1C" following exit interviews this spring. Basically, the coaches say all three of the backs are starters in their minds. That, too, says something about Korliss Marshall's emergence.
Immediately, there's been concern among fans as to how the coaches can split carries between the three backs and keep them all happy.
Not to worry, Bielema has experience finding carries for talented backs. Having a steady stable of backs is something he's used to, and finding carries for them will be nothing new.
In his tenure as Wisconsin head coach, Bielema found 55+ carries for three running backs in five of his seven seasons, most notably the 2010 season. 2006 and 2011 (with Russell Wilson) were the only seasons he failed to do so with the Badgers. Here's the proof:
– PJ Hill - 233 carries, 1,212 yards, 14 TDs
– Zach Brown - 119 carries, 568 yards, 5 TDs
– Lance Smith - 71 carries, 429 yards, 3 TDs
– PJ Hill - 226 carries, 1,161 yards, 13 TDs
– John Clay - 155 carries, 884 yards, 9 TDs
– Zach Brown - 55 carries, 305 yards, 3 TDs
– John Clay - 287 carries, 1,517 yards, 18 TDs
– Montee Ball - 98 carries, 391 yards, 4 TDs
– Zach Brown - 66 carries, 279 yards, 3 TDs
2010 season: 11-2 record, Big 10 champs, 7th in final AP poll, Lost Rose Bowl to TCU
– John Clay - 187 carries, 1,012 yards, 14 TDs
– Montee Ball - 163 carries, 996 yards, 18 TDs
– James White - 156 carries, 1,052 yards, 14 TDs
It's unbelievable, really. Three talented backs getting nearly the same amount of touches AND having great success. Bielema was four Montee Ball rushing yards from having three 1,000 rushers in his backfield. It's impressive to say the least.
2012 season: 8-6 record, Big 10 champs, Lost Rose Bowl to Stanford
– Montee Ball - 307 carries, 1,830 yards, 22 TDs
– James White - 125 carries, 806 yards, 12 TDs
– Melvin Gordon - 62 carries, 621 yards, 3 TDs
You'll notice that Bielema typically, with the exception of 2010, had two backs that he went to regularly, using the third back as a change-of-pace guy, like Marshall was last season just more sparingly. Bielema was still able to find 55+ carries per season for the third back at Wisconsin, and if he can do that for Marshall at the pace he ran the ball last year, then look out. Bielema has also talked about getting Marshall involved in ways other ways, such as lining him up at slot receiver or getting him the ball in motion.
But the key to the Badger running backs rushing for six yards per carry for the entire 2010 season was the play of quarterback Scott Tolzein [ed note: Tolzein and Wisconsin's GINORMOUS offensive line]. He was able to keep defenses from stacking the box by completing 73 percent of his passes and tossing 16 TDs.
Finding enough touches to keep everyone happy will be a challenge for Bielema, but it isn't like 2014 will be an experiment. He's done the three-back system before. My question going into next season won't be whether he can manage the carries, but rather his passing game can be effective enough to make the three-back system work.
What do you think? Can Bielema pull off the three-back system again?
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