UT running back Damion Jones-Moore runs for a 15-yard score during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 38-17 victory against Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant, Mich. The redshirt freshman has scored two touchdowns in as many weeks for the Rockets.
SPECIAL TO BLADE/CHUCK MILLER
The role of the shortest player on the University of Toledo football team is to fill the tallest void.
As his vast rush totals might suggest, workhorse back David Fluellen needs a break every now and then.
Redshirt freshman Damion Jones-Moore — all 5 feet, 7 inches of him — has filled in nicely the past two weeks, scoring fourth-quarter touchdowns to secure wins for the 2-2 Rockets.
With one-third of the season in the books, Jones-Moore is on the verge of taking over as the No. 2 option in Toledo’s backfield and bringing clarity to a position battle that has lingered since spring.
“Damion Jones-Moore is making a strong push right now to get the ball in his hands with more consistency,” coach Matt Campbell said Monday. “He’s had back-to-back good football games.”
Jones-Moore, who ran for more than 4,800 yards with 72 touchdowns in a prodigious prep career at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, is cashing on the rare occasion Fluellen goes to the sideline. He rumbled for 15 yards on his first carry Saturday at Central Michigan, giving the Rockets a two-touchdown cushion early in the fourth quarter on their way to a 38-17 win in the Mid-American Conference opener.
Operating as the quarterback in the wildcat set, Jones-Moore took the snap, burst to the outside, and carried a defender the final five yards or so for his second touchdown in as many weeks. He had a four-yard run seven days earlier to put away Eastern Washington.
The Rockets are at Ball State this week for a West division matchup between teams picked to finish second and third to Northern Illinois.
Jones-Moore, after missing the opener at Florida recovering from a knee injury he sustained in camp, is averaging 5.4 yards on 12 carries. Three of his attempts have resulted in a gain of 10 yards or more with a long of 16.
“When they call my number I have to step in,” he said. “With Flu in there being a great running back, you don’t want to stop the stride. You want to keep up what he has going on.”
Fluellen’s consistent production robs carries from Jones-Moore and every other back vying to be Fluellen’s primary replacement. Fluellen, who erupted for 1,498 yards as a junior last season, is well ahead of that pace. His yard total projected over 13 games — the same number Toledo played in 2012 — is 1,614. His workload has increased each week.
Fluellen’s carries, in order, are nine, 17, 21, and 32, thus leaving scraps to be fought over by Jones-Moore, Cassius McDowell (13 carries), and Kareem Hunt (nine). Campbell stressed the importance of finding balance between overexerting Fluellen and ensuring the back enough touches to find his rhythm.
“There’s a fine line in how many carries does he get, and letting him get to his peak performance,” Campbell said.
Campbell suggested Hunt, a high-profile member of the freshman class, is running fourth in a stable of backs whose vacancy appears to be three. McDowell, who had zero touches the first two games, is averaging 8.7 yards but ball security continues to be his undoing. The fumble McDowell lost in the third quarter Saturday forced him to the bench and created an opening for Jones-Moore.
“It’s not like we all hate each other, but there’s definitely a competition,” Jones-Moore said.
Campbell said his confidence in the trio of Fluellen, Jones-Moore, and McDowell is approaching a level comparable to the 2011 stable in which Fluellen was the understudy to veterans Adonis Thomas and Morgan Williams.
Now Fluellen is the senior workhorse. Jones-Moore, despite his diminutive frame, is proving to be more than an undersized colt.
“I know what that feels like from high school,” Jones-Moore said of Fluellen’s workload. “It’s not easy, and I’m sure at this level it’s even harder. I really appreciate that.”
TWO HONORED: Linebacker Junior Sylvestre (defense) and returner Bernard Reedy (special teams) were named MAC West players of the week. Sylvestre had 12 tackles to go along with a sack and two fumble recoveries, one that which he returned 22 yards for a touchdown. Reedy set up a fourth-quarter touchdown with a 50-yard kickoff return.