LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — As Louisville’s football team entered fall camp this week, the most competitive spot on the roster is at running back, a spirited battle that is likely to continue until days before the season opener at Syracuse on Sept. 3.
Candidates abound for the starting job, although redshirt sophomore Jalen Mitchell would have to be considered the early favorite based on his 13 starts last season when he gained 722 yards while averaging 4.7 yards per carry with five touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 111 yards and two more TDs.
Mitchell was the first to line up at running back in the first practice Wednesday, taking the handoff from quarterback Malik Cunningham and gaining several yards.
But the Rockledge, Fla., native has plenty of competition, with U of L’s running back corps being one of the deepest in the Atlantic Coast Conference. There’s explosive Trevion Cooley, who as a true freshman last season showed tons of potential, rushing for 431 yards and a 5.0 yards per carry average.
Then there’s redshirt sophomore Jawhar Johnson, who ended the 2021 season with a bang, compiling 216 all-purpose yards — including a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD — against Air Force in the First Respondent Bowl.
Add standout Tennessee transfer Tiyon Evans, who was the Vols’ leading rusher with 525 yards and six touchdowns until missing the last five games with an ankle injury, and it’s easy to see why the competition for playing time figures to be intense.
“Every game, we’ll all have to bring it,” Cooley said.
How close is the race? All four were listed as first-team backs in the pre-camp depth chart. And don’t forget about promising freshman Maurice Turner who played both running back and wide receiver at Coffee High in Nicholis, Ga.
“He’s a freak of nature,” Cooley said. “We’ll keep him in the back pocket. We will hide him for a little bit. He’s strong and fast and just elusive. He can do multiple things; he could be in the slot, he can run the ball and he’s a scorer .”
Despite the fierce competition, the combatants insist they are all on good terms and welcome the challenge.
“The mantra we have right now is we all feed off each other,” Evans said. “We all know that we can play so we’re not really worried about that right now. All we worry about is everybody making sure that we have a job and just stay on the course. We’re not trying to think too much. At the end of the day it’s just football.”
Said Cooley: “We’re striving to make each other better. We’re brothers in that room. When we see something wrong we let each other know. We’re just trying to push to be more explosive and take more off of the quarterback.”
Realistically, all four could get their share of snaps over the course of a long, bruising season sure to take its toll in wear and tear on the backs. Both head coach Scott Satterfield and offensive coordinator Lance Taylor mentioned the possibility of a task force approach at Media Day.
“You have to have multiple guys who can step in and make plays, and that’s what I’m excited about in our running back group,” said Taylor, who is in his first season at U of L after three years as Notre Dame’s running backs coach and run game coordinator. “I think we’ve got multiple guys who can step in, play big-time, meaningful reps, carry the football, catch the football out of the backfield, protect the quarterback when we ask him to be in pass protection.
“So we’re going to use all of those guys. Then in the game, it really depends on what guy has the hot hand. Who is really playing well, who’s feeling it, who’s running really hard. I think you get a sense of that as you go through the first couple of series, and really see who has the hot hand for that day.”
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at email@example.com.