NCCU

Eagles’ backfield stocked and loaded

North Carolina Central running back Ramone Simpson is one of three returning backs for the Eagles.
North Carolina Central running back Ramone Simpson is one of three returning backs for the Eagles. NCCU Athletics

For the record, there is no chance North Carolina Central will switch to the wishbone next season. The Eagles would probably benefit from the primitive offense - getting three running backs on the field at once - but it won’t be happening in Durham anytime soon.

N.C. Central running backs coach Jordan Reid will just have to find more creative ways to spread the touches for his deep stable of players. Ramone Simpson was an All-MEAC performer last season, leading the Eagles in rushing with 632 yards. Dorrel McClain was the 2014 MEAC Rookie of the Year, and Torri Cotton started one game last season, giving N.C. Central three returning ball carries with lots of experience.

Throw in the emergence of redshirt freshmen Isaiah Totten and Jordan Freeman, and Reed finds himself facing one of those rare good problems.

With questions about who will play quarterback and having to replace four starters on the offensive line, the running back position is the most experienced on offense. Every running back who got a carry last season returns, and most coaches wish they could boast about having one all-conference ball carrier - the Eagles have two. And even though there is only one football to go around, N.C. Central has more than one guy who can get the job done on any given play.

With McClain just returning to spring practice and Cotton nursing an injury, Reid has yet to have his full stable available. That has opened the door for guys like Freeman and Totten, raising the stakes when it comes to competition between the group.

“The biggest thing I tell those guys is there is no starter in spring ball,” Reid said. “They’ve been doing a good job of pushing each other and teaching each other not to get comfortable. There is no starter right now and whoever the best guy is, that’s who will play.”

The proof is in the pudding. McClain returned last season as the reigning Rookie of the Year. Injuries slowed him down, which thrust Simpson into the starting role. Even when a healthy McClain returned, Simpson had earned the trust of the coaches and the starting spot. Even still, McClain, Cotton and Simpson split the carries as the Eagles won their third straight MEAC title. Games, or starting spots, can’t be won this spring and Reid is keeping all of his backs on a pitch count. With McClain watching the first two scrimmages from the sidelines, Cotton and Totten have taken advantage of those extra reps. Totten said he benefited from sitting out a year ago and learning from the trio older backs.

“They’ve helped me a lot since the first day I got here,” Totten said. “They’ve helped me with plays, signals and just showing me how to play. It’s just little things like maximizing plays and finishing runs.”

Reid wants his older guys to make sure the younger backs don’t make the same mistakes they made back when they were new to college football. Freeman and Totten got their feet wet on the scout team a year ago, taking the redshirt season to adjust to the speed of the game. Now Reid can throw the playbook at the entire group, watching each of them expand their games this spring.

“That’s just the thing I’ve tried to instill in those guys, just being a complete back and not just a runner or pass blocker, just being a good overall back,” Reid said. “They’ve done a good job of just doing what I’m teaching them to do in the classroom and it’s translating over to the field as well.”

Totten, who scored a rushing touchdown in both scrimmages, said, looking back, he’s glad he was able to redshirt because now the game is slower to him. When he gets touches he can react and not think as much. When he scored both his touchdowns, the rest of the backs were the first ones to greet him to celebrate. That’s another plus in Reid’s opinion.

“I tell them walking through the door that I don’t like any selfish guys at all,” Reid said. “Just be happy for the group, the guy in front of you or being you. If that guy scores a touchdown, act like you scored a touchdown, and they’ve done a great job with that. Whoever’s hot that day, they are all happy for that guy.”

If the guys didn’t have numbers on their jerseys, Reid would have a hard time telling them apart. They have similar bills, with McClain being the tallest (5-10) and heaviest (190). The rest of the group hovers around the 5-8, 5-9 range and between 160 and 185 pounds. With a Cotton and Totten and uniforms numbers 23-26 booked up by the running backs, it’s easy for Reid to group them all together. However, between the lines on Saturdays, they each stand out in their own special way.

“Each one brings their own piece to the puzzle,” Reid said. “That’s what makes us a really good group.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV

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