David Fluellen plows through the defense of Dawalyn Harper during the University of Toledo Rockets' annual spring game. Last season Fluellen gained 493 yards in limited opportunities.
With the end to last football season came the end to University of Toledo's stable of running backs.
For two seasons, this three-pronged attack had a clear understanding. Adonis Thomas was the every-down guy, Morgan Williams his replacement, and David Fluellen the novice waiting his turn.
The process of retooling, a competition of which many players have checked in and out of since the spring, is beginning to crystallize. Sophomore speedster Cassius McDowell and true freshman Damion Jones-Moore, neither of whom has carried the ball in a college game, are angling for spots alongside the incumbent Fluellen.
Not to be shortchanged is fifth-year senior David Pasquale, who has impressed in practices down 20 pounds from the spring.
"I think we can be comparable," McDowell said. "They did a great job, and the coaches look at us to build off that."
This model that brings together a featured back and two in the wings has been a rousing success, especially in 2011, when UT ranked 17th nationally in rushing.
As he prepared his team for the Military Bowl -- the swan song for seniors Thomas and Williams -- coach Matt Campbell perused his roster for a breakaway back to replace Thomas. He decided on McDowell, a state champion relay runner in Florida, who played his first two seasons at receiver. A coach's favorite since the beginning, a starting job awaited McDowell his freshman year before he tore his ACL in the preseason.
"I knew we had a chance to pour the reps to him and see if he could do it," Campbell said.
Competition has thinned since the spring, when the running backs room bulged with eight players. Hope that a promising walk-on could shake up the depth chart was wishful thinking, as Jamaal Jackson transferred to Delaware State and Charles Perdue won't rejoin the team until school starts. Ricky Pringle, a third walk-on, is with the team but is not seriously in the mix.
Also cross off junior Darius Reeves, who is injured and will be out for a while. Suddenly, there's no longer quantity. There's quality, though, says running backs coach Louis Ayeni, who spoke highly of McDowell and Jones-Moore but saved his gushiest remarks for Fluellen.
"He has the ability to be not only one of the best backs in this conference, but one of the best backs in this country," Ayeni said. "I don't say that lightly."
Fluellen, who gained 493 yards last year in limited opportunities, was the impressive back in the spring game. The strongest runner of the bunch, he carried two defenders across the goal line to end a drive in which he gobbled up 46 yards.
A broken bone in his foot, which Fluellen suffered running stadium steps in the summer, has kept him out of contact drills. He should begin practicing Monday without restriction. In his stead, first team reps have gone to McDowell, who showcased his flash in the spring game when he snared a short pass coming out of the backfield and turned it into a 31-yard TD.
"He's a guy that has learned to run the football really well inside the tackles," Campbell said. "Before this year I'd say, no, he's an outside runner. I think the last three weeks have really given him the opportunity to develop as a true tailback."
The media is unable to speak with freshmen or first-year players, a mandate established by former coach Tim Beckman and continued by Campbell. Thus, Jones-Moore, built muscularly at 5-foot-7, 180-pounds, is unable to assess his progression. Others are happy to do that for him. Campbell said "there's no question" Jones-Moore will play.
"You can just see the natural ability that he has," Fluellen said. "He can make plays without thinking about it."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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