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Richie Rich entered the season as the frontrunner for the Tar Heels' starting job at running back.

Nine games into the season, Rich helped preserve a win against Maryland - as a defensive back.

Welcome to North Carolina's backfield, where the word "starter" means about as much as "required reading" that you'll never get tested on.

The UNC depth chart released last Monday for the Maryland game listed redshirt freshman Anthony Elzy as the starting tailback, with freshman Ryan Houston as the backup. Johnny White, the third part of UNC's running-back-by-committee, also figured to play.

On game day, White started at tailback.

Elzy never touched the ball until the fourth quarter.

And Ryan Houston? He ran the ball once for one yard.

Big picture: The Tar Heels won their third game of the season behind the play of their running-back-by-confusion.

Implications: UNC must establish the run, first and foremost.

Despite the quality of its wideouts, UNC's passing game dies without its Siamese twin. When a running game is no longer effective, the defense bombards the quarterback with blitzes and schemes.

Against Maryland, UNC passed on every play of its first drive. First down: incomplete. Second down: screen to White. Third down: play-action pass, picked off.

After that first drive, Davis called runs for White in abundance, and he ran, and ran, and ran like Forrest Gump.

On UNC's first scoring march, White carried the ball nine plays out of the offense's first 11 and amassed 60 yards. (He finished with 92 yards on 18 carries.)

Elzy replaced White in the fourth and rushed eight times for 37 yards. He echoed his performance against Virginia Tech earlier this year, when he similarly entered the game in the fourth quarter and gained 74 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

"It has been a saga with the running backs," Davis said after the game. The coach, White and Elzy said the starting job goes to whoever practices the best each week.

 Take that with a grain - scratch that - a tablespoon of salt.

Most likely, the weekly defensive matchups determine whom Davis starts - and yanks after three quarters of quality play.

"Some of the things that we wanted to do against Maryland's defense, we felt like (White) did well," Davis said.

"And then as they adjusted and they changed what was going to work, we had to change the type and styles of runs. And Anthony's maybe just a little bit stronger."

Lacking a clear standout capable of leaving defenders grasping at air, Davis employs the next best option - a committee composed of solid backs bolstered by wide receiver gadget plays.

The Tar Heels currently rank 10th in the ACC in rushing, and their 3-6 record reflects that. UNC has seen its greatest success when it commits to the run with one back leading the way.

Establishing the run improves all phases of a team: It opens up the passing game, especially for play-action, and it keeps the defense off the field longer.

That way, defensive back Richie Rich's legs stay fresh, enabling him to help defend one of Maryland's final plays and preserve the win.

If he brings that intensity to practice this week, maybe he'll start in the backfield on Saturday.



Contact Sam Rosenthal at samrose@email.unc.edu.

 

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