It’s difficult to remember the last time the University of Toledo did not have a top-shelf running back.
And it’s really difficult to remember UT having as many good backs as it does in 2013.
Even with a history that includes quarterbacks like Chuck Ealey and Gene Swick and Bruce Gradkowski, to name a only a few, Toledo never shed its identity as a physical, running football team.
From the great Mel Triplett of the 1950s to the first 1,000-yard rusher, Roland Moss, to the only 2,000-yard rusher, Wasean Tait, to all those in between and since, the Rockets have always grinded it out on the ground.
“We hear about guys like Tait all the time; the coaches always talk about that tradition and how they worked and what it takes to compete,” Damion Jones-Moore said. “It’s sort of crazy, but it seems like that history keeps repeating itself.”
Starting with Casey McBeth in 1992, UT has had a 1,000-yard rusher 17 times in the last 22 seasons. (OK, so we rounded up Trinity Dawson’s 999 yards in 2003. Sue us.)
There are so many names. We thought we’d never see another Chester Taylor, and maybe we haven’t, but guys like Jalen Parmele and Morgan Williams and Adonis Thomas all pulled their weight. And now it’s David Fluellen, who had 1,498 yards a year ago and has notched 1,067 this time around despite injuries limiting him to about seven of UT’s nine games.
With Fluellen in and out, true freshman Kareem Hunt has rushed for 127, 114, and 168 yards in the last three games.
Last Saturday, the 5-foot-7, 180-pound Jones-Moore added 67 yards on seven carries (more than nine yards per carry for the math impaired), while Marc Remy had 58 yards and a touchdown. Ricky Pringle, a walk-on, saw his first action of the year and got six carries for 51 yards, which is 8.5 per attempt.
“We’re getting ready to put Remy and Pringle in the game and I look over and Fluellen is coaching them up,” said UT head coach Matt Campbell. “There’s a great camaraderie.”
We haven’t even mentioned Cassius McDowell, Fluellen’s backup at the start of the season who has been away from the team for family reasons. Hunt, Jones-Moore, and Remy are all in their first years of eligibility, which is why you can’t wipe that smile off running backs coach Louis Ayeni’s face.
“These guys are like brothers,” Ayeni said. “The character in our room has never been better. The competition has raised the level of every guy. Their attitude is, ‘We don’t mess around. Run ’em over; make ’em miss. It’s what we do.’”
The Rockets are averaging 239 yards per game on the ground, No. 2 in the MAC and 15th best among the nation’s FBS teams.
The school record is 259.4 ypg set in 1981 when four players (Arnold Smiley with 1,013 yards, Jim Kelso, John Walker, and Melvin Tucker) all had at least 445 net yards rushing. That may be the last time Toledo had the depth that it has in 2013.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Jones-Moore, “because everybody is competing and getting their turn. It’s not a matter of who is doing it, but how he’s doing. We all want the other guys to do well. It’s about the group effort. We feel no one is so much better than the rest.”
Well, yes and no. There’s no question which back, when healthy, is at the top of the food chain. Ayeni says Fluellen is the “total package” and is squarely on the NFL’s radar.
“Flu runs with so much passion,” Jones-Moore said of the UT senior. “He’s taught us all so much about being patient, slowing the game down, reading the defenses and seeing holes.”
When Ayeni, now the associate head coach, first joined the staff, he was told the running back corps was probably the weakest position group.
“Then I saw Adonis Thomas and then 22 [Fluellen] came into camp and I figured we were OK,” Ayeni said. “Now, this season, it was Flu and a bunch of young kids, so the worry was what happens if Flu gets dinged? Nobody’s too worried now. Kareem Hunt is just a freakish athlete. Damion is really quick and with his size can disappear behind the offensive line. And there are others.
“I tell these guys all the time that teams that have won at Toledo have done it by running the ball. Senior Night with Flu is going to be tough. But you know what? Tradition never graduates.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.