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Sooners, others turn to two-running back system

JAKE TROTTER Published: July 12, 2009
On a rainy Red River Shootout in 2004, Oklahoma pounded the run with Adrian Peterson.

Time and time again.

All told, Peterson finished with 32 rushes for 225 yards in a 12-0 victory over the Longhorns. The next week he carried the ball 36 times, and two weeks after that, 33 times at Oklahoma State.

But these days at all levels of football, workhorse running backs like Peterson are few and far between.

Instead, more and more teams are turning to two-back systems or platoon backfields.

Of college football’s top 14 rushing teams last season that didn’t use the option as their base offense, 13 had at least two running backs with 78 or more carries apiece.

That includes all three state schools.

At Tulsa, backup Jamad Williams still managed to get 86 carries, even though starter Tarrion Adams ran for more than 1,500 yards.

At Oklahoma State, where Kendall Hunter easily led the Big 12 in rushing, second-string back Keith Toston finished with 102 rushes for almost 700 yards.

And at OU, Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray became the first tandem in Big 12 history to rush for more than 1,000 yards each in a season.

"I think (the two-back system) keeps them fresh, where they’re not beat up,” OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. "They’re not worn out, they’re fresh and there’s some juice in their step.”

In addition to keeping running backs fresh, the impact of the two-back system has been considerable.

It’s changed the way schools with proud running back traditions have recruited. Instead of targeting one running back, these schools have been able to stockpile because they’re now playing multiple running backs.

Southern California, for example, has been renowned for playing more than one back in recent years. In 2008, the Trojans had three different backs rush for more than 600 yards. USC already has four high-profile running backs verbally committed from the class of 2010.

The Sooners have also been stockpiling blue-chip running backs. A year after signing two of the nation’s top running backs in 2008, OU recently received verbal commitments from Brennan Clay and Roy Finch, rated the No. 2 and 3 all-purpose backs in the country. They figure to play together in Norman. Like Murray, Clay also possesses the ability to line up at receiver. Finch, at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, is not physically equipped to withstand a large rushing load.

The two-back system should also prolong the careers of these running backs, points out former OU Heisman running back Steve Owens.

"It takes a toll on you,” said Owens, who carried the ball more than 900 times during his college career in the late 1960s. "I played five years in the NFL, and probably had maxed out my carries. A running back has only so many hits in a career.”

Roots of the two-back system can be traced back to earlier days of the NFL.

In 1972, Miami’s Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka became the first running back duo to rush for 1,000 yards each. But unlike two-back systems today, the two played at the same time, with Csonka filling the role of fullback.

In the 1980s, NFL teams began using "third-down backs,” players skilled at catching the ball out of the backfield, who would replace the regular backs on third downs. Dave Meggett made a career with the New York Giants as a third-down back.

But even then, workhorses like Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson still carried the load.

Today, that’s not the case.

In 1998, 11 running backs received more than 300 carries, including Jamal Anderson, who had 410 rushing attempts.