Stable of running backs key to Eastern Michigan football team's hopes
Together, they create the definition of running back by committee. Four individuals, possessing four different skill sets - all running with a common purpose.
They came to Eastern Michigan hoping their backfield abilities would turn them household names.
But for Corey Welch, Dwayne Priest, Terrence Blevins and Dominique Sherrer, success is no longer measured by individual achievement or work load. Instead, it's about building a stable of backfield talent collectively set on speeding up Eastern Michigan's football turnaround.
Rather than concerning themselves with who is contributing how much, the four backs just do their job and run.
"We're one big family," said Welch, who is listed as Eastern's starting tailback on the depth chart heading into Saturday's season-opener against Army. "It doesn't matter who gets the ball, who's throwing it, who's blocking for us. As long as we get the 'W' and have the best chance to win, there's no regret, no animosity between the players.
"Whoever is running is running."
In an Eastern Michigan pro-style scheme installed by offensive coordinator Ken Karcher, success hinges heavily on the run game. The offense revolves around using one back at a time, but offers a chance to anyone who is put into the position to succeed.
It's a shift in responsibility for Eastern Michigan's backs, who, in the spread offense run over the past five seasons, were used more as blockers and decoys to set up other facets of the offense.
But the spotlight shines directly on the run game, making getting the most out of Welch, Priest, Blevins and Sherrer a priority. But before they could shift into more of a premier role, each had to learn to approach their position with self-confidence, understanding that a little swagger helps.
That's where running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley entered the picture.
Wheatley, who starred at Michigan before spending 10 years in the NFL with the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders, told the backs to picture themselves as Navy Seals - the first ones thrust into action.
Wheatley also wants the running backs to understand how they fit into the big picture. He says it's important to know how they'll respond if an offensive lineman misses a block or how they can open things up for quarterback Andy Schmitt and his cast of receivers.
Wheatley also drove home another important lesson: Individual success no longer mattered.
"Being the man, you have to be ready to be the man," Wheatley said this week. "And then I asked them, 'Would you rather have a 2,000-yard season and go 2-10 or have 600 yards and be a MAC champion?'
"Would we love to have that back that could dominate and be that man? Any coach would love to have that. But we have four good backs, and why try to (narrow) it down to just one guy?"
So with four solid options, Eastern Michigan chose to build on collective talent rather than pinning all of its hopes on one individual. In time, head coach Ron English hopes to establish a dominant back. Until then, he will ride all four.
In Blevins, Eastern has a 225-pound powerhouse that led the Eagles with 575 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. In Priest, they have a speedy, but powerful back that can be productive on the ground or as a quick passing option out of the backfield.
Then, there's Welch and Sherrer. Welch is the slasher that can cover a lot of ground quickly. Sherrer is the steady and sure performer who will complete the package.
"We have a lot of variety, and it's hard to keep one guy off," said Welch, who had 25 carries last season, covering 6.2 yards per effort. "Everyone has a different trait that could be used in a game, and that's what's going to help this offense run this year."
They're determined to do it together. Priest said selfishness has never been an issue within the confines of the running back room.
English has driven that belief system home since being hired. Now as the Eagles begin their quest to improve on last year's 3-9 season, they will do so as a unit.
Eastern Michigan's running backs believe that putting the clamps on them as a unit won't be an easy task.
"We have to play with confidence because the way this offense goes, it goes off the running backs," Priest said. "And every time we step in between those lines, it's going to be tough to stop us."
Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2554 or firstname.lastname@example.org