CHICAGO — While senior running back Camion Patrick was nursing a lingering shoulder injury in the spring, IU Coach Tom Allen put running backs coach Mike Hart’s 2008 NFL Combine numbers on the board under a pseudonym.
He told Hart and the other running backs the player who owned those numbers was coming to camp in the summer — a tenth of a second slower than former Hoosier Tevin Coleman in 2015 and four and 12 inches shorter than former IU running back Jordan Howard’s respective vertical leap and broad jump.
Even Hart was critical of the numbers he had forgotten were his. Those numbers belonged to the running back who placed fifth in Heisman votes in 2006 and went down as one of the greatest Big Ten running backs of all time.
The lesson, Allen said, was that Hart didn’t walk onto the field possessing more talent than everyone else, but he left Michigan as the program’s all-time leading rusher. And as Patrick was granted a medical hardship, ending his collegiate football career, the lesson applies more than ever to the IU backfield that lost its anticipated 2017 workhorse.
“There was something special about him,” Allen said about Hart. “It was his toughness. There were some skillset things that he did well, but he wasn’t going to outrun a lot of guys. But he was obviously a great, great football player. It was a valuable lesson, for that position and others, to say this is what we’re looking for. Why was Mike Hart such a great player?”
Allen and the coaching staff was worried about Patrick. Allen said the running back’s shoulder was not healing right as offseason camps continued into the summer, and he hadn’t practiced at all.
This was the guy that was supposed to walk onto the field with more talent than everyone else, a gift even Hart didn’t have. Former head coach Kevin Wilson and former running backs coach Deland McCullough raved about their new running back when Patrick committed to transfer to Bloomington from East Mississippi Community College in 2015.
Wilson even went as far as declaring Patrick the best player on the 2015 team that boasted Jordan and former IU quarterback Nate Sudfeld in the backfield.
The shoulder injury wasn’t all that held the running back down though, as academic ineligibility kept him sidelined in 2015, and a knee injury sidelined him for most of the 2016 season. The only flash he showed for fans was against Rutgers in 2016, when he caught six passes for 154 yards and had a 40-yard touchdown.
“We just had to come to a conclusion that his body just let him down, and he wasn’t able to do it, to play that position, the pounding it’s going to take to play,” Allen said. “Ever since I’ve been here, he’s been hurt the whole time. I think he’s very frustrated by all of it. I hate it for him. Obviously we were counting on him.”
The Hoosiers really were counting on him because it has been many years since IU entered a season without a clear starting running back.
Now the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the stable of backs that McCullough brought to Bloomington and Hart now coaches. A backfield “by-committee” is the plan, Allen said. Combining the skillsets of current running backs — juniors Ricky Brookins, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Majette, sophomores Devonte Williams and Tyler Natee and redshirt-freshman Cole Gest.
“We really have a lot of depth, for sure,” Allen said. “Just don’t have that one guy that is proven.”
Majette is probably the closest to proven and complete as a running back, Allen said. The junior posted 37 carries and a receiving touchdown in 2015 and matched his usage numbers in 2016 before suffering an injury that kept him out of the last five games of the season.
Brookins had the most carries of any returning running back in the Foster Farms Bowl, the only game Allen has coached at the helm so far. He carried the ball 12 times for 53 yards. Rodriguez was also the most featured back in the Spring Game in April, scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Natee is also famous for his Big Bacon package where he shared the backfield with former Hoosier quarterback Zander Diamont, and Gest has impressed with his speed.
None of the running backs have overwhelming talent, and each of them brings a different asset to the table. The starting job is in the air, Allen said, but he’s not fearful of his running backs failing to prove themselves.
“I just know how this can go, and somebody is going to step up,” Allen said. “That’s always going to be the case. I’m anxious to see who that might be, but we’ve got plenty of guys to pick from.”
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