Braves turn to new backs in offense this fall

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 17, 2004

LORMAN &045; Only a sophomore with limited experience, Jeremy McCoy knows all about what he’s getting into.

He’s never really been the guy in the backfield. And now that he’s stepping up the ladder in the Alcorn State backfield, he still won’t be the guy.

But that’s OK.

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&uot;In high school I was in the same situation,&uot; said McCoy, a Dallas native who prepped at Carter &045; the high school responsible for producing Carolina Panthers linebacker Jesse Armstead, a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

&uot;We had a lot of backs, and we ran three of us. I’ve been in this situation before. You can’t be selfish. (Quarterback Donald) Carrie is the person in front of you. All we can do is help the team win a conference championship.&uot;

It’s McCoy who is teaming with Robert Lester and newcomer Vernardus Cooper for that three-man running back rotation the Braves are assembling in spring drills. Lester is the only holdover from a year ago and got the least touches teaming with seniors Andrew Burks and Sidney Dumas.

The three combined for more than 1,600 yards rushing, and coaches aren’t willing to change something that worked. It’s a three-man rotation that worked, and coaches aren’t interested in making any of the three the man.

&uot;We’ll stick with that,&uot; ASU head coach Johnny Thomas said. &uot;They’re doing an outstanding job. McCoy and Lester have the experience, but Vernardus is going to come along and be a good one. We’ve got another kid who is red-shirted and not out there. It’s looking pretty good for us.&uot;

Burks led the team in carries by far, nearly doubling that of Dumas and almost 100 more than Lester. But the three combined to make about as close to the total package of one back as possible &045; Burks was the power runner, Dumas had breakaway speed and Lester was the slasher-type back.

&uot;We lost two good running backs last year in Sidney Dumas and Andrew Burks,&uot; said Lester, a senior who originally signed with Alcorn as a defensive back out of South Panola. &uot;But now it’s looking like I’m the starter. I’m the only one with experience. But everyone is having a good spring. None of these young guys have experience, so it’s a big, big burden put on my shoulders. Last year I could depend on Burks and Sidney to carry the load.&uot;

Lester (5-9, 183) is the biggest name and could be a featured ball carrier in the backfield, although McCoy impressed in his brief time on the field. Lester had breakout games last season in wins over Southern and Mississippi Valley midway through the season, while Dumas missed a couple games for disciplinary reasons.

&uot;With McCoy, Lester and Cooper, we might not miss a beat,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;They might not be as fast as Dumas, but they give you size, power and some speed.&uot;

McCoy may be the bruiser type that Burks was and showed signs of it last season as a freshman. McCoy (6-0, 210) didn’t really get into a game until he ran for 86 yards on 13 carries in a 66-0 cakewalk over Prairie View A&M, enough to earn Newcomer of the Week honors from the conference.

He finished the season with 38 carries for 222 yards and three touchdowns.

&uot;We lost some good running backs, and both were great guys,&uot; McCoy said. &uot;I have to step up now since they’re gone. We’ll be all right. We didn’t lose too much. Probably what we did lose most was experience. Last year I was trying to get the feel of things and was in the learning process. I’ve got to produce &045; step up, be a leader and play. Last year I was just in the shadows.&uot;

Then there’s Cooper, a 5-11, 215-pound red-shirt freshman out of Greenwood who may one of the biggest surprises in camp. So far Thomas said he’s shown some signs of being more of an all-purpose runner, although that’s far away right now in the second week of spring drills.

But the newcomer could be a key cog in the rotation along with McCoy.

&uot;We believe he’s going to play,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;He’s got to learn the system. Once he gets that down, he’ll be a tremendous running back. (McCoy) is really improving. He can run the football with authority. We’ll certainly use him in the power-I set. He certainly can run the football, and he’s got the experience.&uot;

The rotation as it stands now is one that excites Lester heading into his final fall on The Reservation. Already one of the fastest players on the team (maybe the fastest with the departure of cornerback Tyrone Parsons), Lester likes the offense with Carrie back for his senior season and some budding stars in receivers Charlie Spiller and Nate Hughes.

The line needs some work after the loss of a number of starters from last season, but the size of the freshmen coming in this fall could go a long way in that department.

&uot;I’m really excited about the upcoming season,&uot; Lester said. &uot;I think about it all the time. I’ve been out here for so long. We are team-oriented, and one guy is not going make all the plays. We play as a team. We’ve got some young linemen, and it all starts with the line. We’re going to have a lot of size. That was our main focus over the recruiting season. I’m ready to see them here.&uot;