UNC running backs shouldering load
North Carolina running backs haven't been stepping out much this preseason.
Running out of bounds has been prohibited by running backs coach Larry Porter since the fall, so sophomore Khris Francis and his backfield mates have been lowering their shoulders a lot more.
"Our running back corps has definitely stepped it up as a whole," said Francis, a former Hillside Hornet fighting for playing time in a crowded backfield. "That started with Coach Porter. We're definitely a more physical group this year. You can tell with every run, people are dipping their shoulder.
"We have this rule: You can't go out of bounds. That's really stepped us up."
There are consequences for going out of bounds, punishing 50-yard, up-down runs. So far, Francis has avoided that penalty, preferring to deliver punishment to defenders.
"It was just insane, so it forced you to to change your mentality," Francis said. "That was definitely the start. When we see a gap, even if there's a man in it, if that's the hole we're supposed to hit, we challenge that guy to tackle us."
Francis was the fifth leading rusher as a true freshman in 2013, carrying 63 times for 236 yards and a touchdown. He's battling with junior Romar Morris, sophomore T.J. Logan and freshman Elijah Hood for touches this season.
"He's right in the mix with everybody," UNC coach Larry Fedora said of Francis. "He brings a whole different style. That’s the unique thing about this group is that each one of them is different, each one brings something a little different to the table. Khris is a very smooth runner, can be physical when he needs to be. He's kind of a slicer, and he runs the zone very well, which is good for us."
Francis said he wasn't sure where he fits in the Tar Heels backfield, because the coaching staff has rotated tailbacks with the first-, second- and third-team offense this fall.
Logan, a sophomore from Greensboro, started four games a year ago, getting 533 yards and four touchdowns as he worked back from a knee injury. He was the second leading rusher behind quarterback Marquise Williams.
Hood was the Associated Press player of the year in North Carolina for Charlotte Catholic in 2013, enrolling at UNC in January in time to participate in spring practice.
And don't forget about Morris, who ran for 296 yards and five scores last season.
The tailbacks have quickly bonded in their brief time together on campus.
"We're probably the (most) tight-knit group, as far as position," Francis said. "We all are pulling each other up and making sure we're doing well, but at the same time, we all know it's a competition, and it's a dogfight. It's all for playing time, and we all know that, but it's not like we're putting each other down. We're all pushing each other to be great."
And in addition to trying to be a more punishing runner by staying in bounds, Francis has been pushing himself to be a better blocker this spring and preseason.
"A big thing for me and for most of the running back corps was just blocking," Francis said. "That was my main mentality coming into spring this year. I worked on that a lot. This fall camp, I've kept that up."
NOTES — Fedora didn't like UNC's “sloppy” offense when the team scrimmaged Saturday.
"We had too many balls on the ground offensively, but, then again, on the other side of the ball, the defense created some turnovers, which was a really good thing," Fedora said. "We gave up a few big plays defensively that we've got to get corrected. It was basic things about kids not filling the proper gap, those kind of things, so those are mental mistakes.
"But overall, it was your typical first one. Everyone's effort was really good. We got a bunch of reps with some young kids who are swimming mentally, so it was good for them to get out there and see themselves doing it in real life.”
Freshman quarterback Mitch Trubisky and Williams, a junior, continue to battle for the starting job under center.
"We're still in the same situation," Fedora said. "Marquise is very comfortable with managing and moving the chains and all the things we're trying to do offensively. Mitch did a nice job running the offense also. The nice thing is there's not really a change with the rest of the guys, depending on who's back there, and that's what we're looking for."
No decision has been made as to whether it'll be Williams or Trubisky getting a majority of the snaps, or if the two will be in a regular rotation, Fedora said.