Although North Carolina will have several options at its disposal at running back when training camp begins next week, one thing is evident; those competing for playing time at the position have practically no game experience, and whichever player does win the starting job for the season opener against James Madison will be making his first start in the Tar Heel offensive backfield.
"We have one carry returning among the running backs competing for the job (Richie Rich)," said UNC head coach Butch Davis. "Training camp will be critical to find out if we're going to have one running back or running back by committee. It may be running back by committee until someone emerges during the season."
With the departures of graduating senior Ronnie McGill and rising senior Barrington Edwards, who was dismissed from the team in the spring, the Tar Heels are going to have a bevy of young players, including three redshirt freshmen (Johnny White, Anthony Elzy, and Anthony Parker-Boyd) a sophomore (Richie Rich) and two true freshmen (Devon Ramsay and Ryan Houston), competing for playing time.
White had a very solid spring before missing multiple practices and the spring game due to a nagging ankle injury, but he recovered remarkably well from a surgical procedure performed a few months back, when jagged fragments of bone were removed from his upper ankle adjacent to the bottom of the shin bone.
White was able to participate in voluntary preseason workouts in June and July, and he has shown the same speed and cutback ability that made him one of the prizes of North Carolina's 2006 signing class.
At this point, White appears to be the likeliest candidate to receive the brunt of the carries, at least early on in the season.
"He's better," Davis said of White. "The feedback from the trainer has been that he is doing very well. There is no adverse setbacks over the last three or four weeks. He's made all the mini-checkups. They expect him to be 100 percent (for training camp)."
White, a powerful and elusive back, is capable of making type of cuts that leave opposing defenders flailing at air. If healthy, he is the kind of back that a program can hang its hat on, which makes the central issue around White throughout training camp whether or not he can handle a full load of carries for the Tar Heels once the regular season begins.
"He's going to be real good," senior defensive end Hilee Taylor said of White. "He runs hard, and he runs low."
"Johnny White is healthy," said senior wide receiver Joe Dailey. "He has been getting in shape all summer long. The guy has great cutting ability. He is extremely fast. Once he gets in the open and makes somebody miss, it's good night. He's pretty savvy. He can catch the football. He's a pretty good player. He and Richie Rich are very similar. They are one-cut guys. Once they made a decision, they are gone."
Although he doesn't have the flash and the outright speed of White, Elzy is a hard-charging and determined back that is capable of churning out some tough yards.
Elzy is a nice compliment to White's more elusive style of running, as he hits holes hard and can execute running plays between the tackles that do not require as much improvisation.
Parker-Boyd, a dynamic athlete who has also gotten looks at quarterback and wide receiver during his brief time in Chapel Hill, is not a prototypical tailback, but he has excellent speed and can make defenders miss. He provides quality depth for the Tar Heels, and could prove to be a key addition should others be unable to sustain the load.
Although White and Elzy have more past experience at running back than Parker-Boyd, the fact that none of them have played at the college level, and are also learning under a new coaching staff, levels the playing field significantly.
Rich, one of the more highly-regarded recruits under the John Bunting era, redshirted his first year in Chapel Hill in 2005, and did not see much field action last season playing behind McGill and Edwards. This year's training camp is particularly critical for Rich as it relates to his prospects of being a significant contributor to the Tar Heels down the road, as he will look to find a spot in the regular running back rotation while avoiding falling behind younger players on the depth chart.
Ramsay, who originally committed to Boston College but signed with North Carolina after the coaching upheaval within the Atlantic Coast Conference last year, is a gifted athlete with the potential to play either tailback or fullback. He was a key addition to the 2007 signing class for the Tar Heels, and while he'll face stiff competition for immediate playing time, Ramsay should eventually be in position to help UNC.
Houston, the top in-state running back in North Carolina in the Class of 2007, has a world of potential, but he needs time developing in UNC's strength and conditioning program before he will be able to make his biggest impact. Both Houston and Ramsay are likely candidates to redshirt given the number of returning players, and how it would benefit the two newcomers.
Another true freshman, Greg Little, is also a possibility for tailback.
One of the nation's top athletes among first-year players, Little played all over the field during his high school career, and with his combination of speed and size, he is capable of taking carries and running routes, and may very well get a chance to do both for the Tar Heels during training camp.
While it should make the Tar Heel coaches feel good about all the young depth at running back, they surely have to be a little worried about the total lack of experience among the group, which makes training camp all the more important in terms of getting everyone ready for the season.
The Tar Heels will be looking for one guy to emerge as the one that can 'carry the mail,' in the parlance of coaches, while also making sure that certain players get the necessary reps in practice to feel comfortable getting the ball on gameday.
It is a delicate balance where previous UNC staffs in recent years have seemed to fall short, but based on the credentials of the new Tar Heel staff, all the pieces seem to be in place for North Carolina to return to its glorious past of rushing dominance, even if it takes multiple players to get the yardage.
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman oversaw an era of unparalleled running excellence at Northern Illinois, where the program never had a back rush for below 1,500 yards during his time there. The Tar Heels are looking to employ quicker, more agile blockers capable of springing holes in opposing lines and getting the UNC backs room to run.
Even if it takes two or more players for the Tar Heels to get 1,500 rushing yards this season, it would definitely be a step in the right direction; UNC's top two tailbacks in 2006 amassed a combined 1,211 yards.
For a program a decade removed from its last 1,000 yard rusher, Tar Heel fans are eager to the point of desperation for a running game that can wear down its opposition and cripple them late in games, like some of the UNC teams they cheered for under Bill Dooley, Dick Crum, and Mack Brown.
Given the talent currently in place, everything appears in line for the Tar Heels to get back to that point.
Now, they just have to find that player or combination of players to make it happen.