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July 28, 2010

PREVIEW 2010: Running Backs

Louisiana Tech enters the 2010 season with a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, and a radically new approach to its offensive philosophy. Derek Dooley and his 2-tight end, 2-back sets have packed their bags and made their way to Rocky Top. Fan reaction was mixed at best to Dooley and former offensive coordinator Frank Scelfo's run-first approach to the game. Some saw it as a good thing - a way to maintain control of the football, chewing up playing time and leveling the playing field by taking snaps away from opponents' offenses. Many more, however, saw it as a frustrating exercise in antiquated college football - a form of the game that most, including the majority of the teams in Dooley's beloved SEC, have entirely moved away from. During Dooley's tenure, results were directly related to the discrepancy in talent between Louisiana Tech and its opponent: facing an undermanned opponent, Tech was able to pound away with superior line strength and dominate the game. Facing a more talented or disciplined foe, Tech struggled mightily to move the football.

Every fan points a finger at play calling when things go wrong, but for Derek Dooley's Tech squads, play calling was a very real, very legitimate issue. The team seemingly had two playbooks, one featuring an array of misdirection plays and hurry-up principles that proved very successful, and another containing seemingly nothing but draws and a woeful drop-back passing game, which provided terrible results time and time again. For whatever reason, the coaching staff never fully trusted the Not Terrible playbook, instead choosing to dip into The One That Didn't Work at the worst possible times, including a particularly painful second half in a 2008 home loss to Nevada. We'll get into the how's and why's of the 2007-2009 Louisiana Tech passing game when we take a look at the quarterbacks in a couple of days. For now, let's focus our attention on running back position.

THE DEPTH CHART
1. Lennon Creer, JR(RS), 6'0 210
2. Ray Holley, JR(JC), 5'9 192
3. Lyle Fitte, SO, 5'8 185
Roosevelt Falls, SR, 6'0 225
Tyrone Duplessis, SO, 5'7, 185
Myke Compton, SR, 5'8, 200

THE PLAYERS
While Dooley's questionable offensive game plan made the move with him to the University of Tennessee, his players did not. The cupboard is certainly not bare at the running back position, even with the departure of Louisiana Tech's all-time leading rusher Daniel Porter, whom landed in Carolina as an undrafted free agent with the NFL's Panthers, and last year's 3rd running back DJ Morrow, who decided to transfer after being moved to wide receiver by the new coaching staff.

It's hard to ignore the irony surrounding projected starting running back Lennon Creer, a Tatum, TX native that decided to move back closer to home after playing his first two years at, of all places, the University of Tennessee. Dooley did a masterful job of selling Louisiana Tech to Creer, yet Tech's now-former coach will never reap the rewards of his efforts. And, make no mistake; Lennon Creer will be Louisiana Tech's starting running back. Its bell cow. Its downhill, hard charging, big play-waiting-to-happen workhorse of a back that will have underachieved, along with the rest of the offense, if he doesn't eclipse the 1,000 yard, 10 touchdown plateau.

Early returns on Creer's play have been fantastic, with fans, players, and coaches alike raving about his ability. His speed was evident in the team's 2010 Spring Game, where one blazing run in particular drew a universal 'WOW!' reaction from those in attendance. In an offense predicated on getting touches to playmakers, expect Creer to play a major role in Louisiana Tech's success, or lack thereof, in 2010.

The offense is expected to feature three running backs, and the latter two spots in that rotation will be split evenly between two very different players: incoming junior college signee Ray Holley and sophomore (and former wide receiver) Lyle Fitte.

Holley is a late arrival to Ruston, going unsigned in February before receiving the call from Coach Dykes in May of this year. It's surprising that Holley didn't land somewhere on signing day - he's fast, strong, and ultra-productive, with 2, 1,000+ yard seasons as team captain of Orange Coast Community College. There are a lot of stereotypes that various writers want to pen about Holley - quips about motors that never stop, comparisons to former Louisiana State back Jacob Hester, and limited athletic ability. Dismiss all of that. Immediately. Holley is an incredible athlete. The guy runs a legitimate 4.4 40 yard dash, and his weight room abilities have already been compared with Porter, who was a monster lifter for 4 seasons. His role is expected to be in the traditional running game, spelling Creer and bringing quick bursts of intensity and home-run ability to the position. Athletically, he is an upgrade at the position over Morrow.

The 3rd man in the rotation is Fitte, a former star running back at state champion South Plaquemines High but a wideout under Dooley. This is another guy that arrived physically ready to play as soon as he got to Ruston. Short, but not small, Fitte is the same kind of compact athlete as Porter and Holley, but his playing style is very different. Fitte is all about speed. Flat out, straight line, give me the ball and get the hell out of the way speed. Dooley recognized this ability and envisioned Fitte as his new Phillip Livas, and as such moved him out wide as soon as he arrived on campus. But the guy is a natural running back, and new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin recognized this immediately.

Fitte was moved back to the backfield and shined in the Spring, earning the public praise of Franklin time and time again. Expect his year at receiver to help Fitte this Fall - he possesses the best route running and pass catching ability of all of Louisiana Tech's backs, and that's where he is expected to contribute to the team this season. Expect to see a lot of Fitte in the screen game, the WR sweep game (Franklin uses the running back as his fifth wideout), and in option packages.

With Tech's three running backs seemingly set in stone (Dykes mentioned his 3-man rotation, and these three names, at the WAC's Media Day this week), seniors Roosevelt Falls and Myke Compton, and true sophomore Tyrone Duplessis, may be on the outside looking in.

Falls, a former fullback, is Tech's biggest option in the backfield and, for the first time in his career, flashed his ability to perform in the team's 2010 Spring Game, housing a 50 yard option pitch from Steven Ensminger amongst other notable runs. Due to his size, Falls may get some looks in short yardage situations as well as 3rd and long looks, where his pass blocking ability can benefit the offense.

After suffering a devastating knee injury last season, Compton is fighting his way back into the mix. The senior from Georgia runs hard and serves as Louisiana Tech's Special Teams captain. Make no mistake: Myke Compton is a key member of the team. If he's healthy, he will see the field on every Teams play and should even get occasional snaps at RB, where his hard-charging style should work wonders in late-game clock-milking situations. Compton has been a great player, person, and leader during all 4 years of his stay in Ruston.

Duplessis is a very interesting case. He's second only to Creer in terms of ranking and publicity coming out of high school. He was very good in his role last season as the number 2 man, performing especially well in the Hawaii and LSU games. The problem is, Duplessis got hurt. And he was out for the Spring. This allowed Fitte, Falls, and the newcomer Holley to win the favor of Tony Franklin while Duplessis watched from the sidelines. Tyrone's talent is unquestioned - when it comes to field vision and the ability to see holes in the defense, he's the team's most talented option at running back. If 100% for Spring, there's no question in my mind he's the number 2 man going into camp. But, again, he was hurt. He may still be hurt. And he has a redshirt year available. How the team handles Duplessis should be interesting - if there are any injuries to the top 3, Tyrone is the first guy off the bench. If there aren't, he could very well redshirt. It's something to keep an eye on.

THE SCHEME
When Dykes was hired, many uninformed fans began hyperventilating over the return of the Gary Crowton wide open 90% pass game offense. Louisiana Tech's own marketing department even played into this with their High Octane slogan for the 2010 season. But make no mistake about it - at the very least this will be a 50/50 team on offense, and more likely will run the ball about 60 percent of the time. Right now the team has about 20 plays (20!), and 10 of those are running plays. These include a zone/read package with sweeps and counters off of it, some trap game where Tech pulls the weak side guard, and some speed option stuff. All of these traditional looks should be the responsibility of Creer and Holley, with a 75/25 split. As fans saw with Dwight Dasher at Middle Tennessee last season, the quarterback also plays a vital role here, both in making the right read in give/take situations and in running the ball himself. That will be covered when we look at the QBs.

The backs are heavily involved in the screen game and in the speed sweep. This is where Fitte will contribute. Also, don't be surprised is Phillip Livas takes snaps as Fitte's replacement in 5-wide sets, giving Tech the ability to run the bubble screen or the speed sweep back to the weak side. There may even be a wildcat package for Livas, similar to what Scelfo implemented last season.

Running back is a strength of the 2010 team, and the position is led by FCS National Championship coach Pierre Ingram. We will take a look at Ingram in our next Preview 2010 installment. See you all there.


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