Pack's backs young

State backfield is unproven

staff writerApril 16, 2010 

— Quick, name N.C. State's starting running back.

Don't worry if you can't; Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien hasn't made a decision yet, but bring a roster to Saturday's Kay Yow Spring Football Game just in case. For the first time in almost 20 years, the Pack's featured running back will be a relative unknown commodity to the team's fan base.

Either junior Curtis Underwood or sophomore James Washington will replace Toney Baker, who rushed for 773 yards last year, in the starting lineup.

"We don't know," O'Brien said. "We'll have to figure it out in the fall."

For the past five seasons, N.C. State has had some combination of Baker, Andre Brown and Jamelle Eugene in the backfield. Before that trio, T.A. McLendon led the team in rushing for three straight seasons from 2002 to 2004.

McLendon, a ballyhooed prep prospect from Albemarle, was preceded by a combination of Ray Robinson, the 1998 ACC Rookie of the Year, and Rahshon Spikes.

You have to go back to 1993, the freshman year of Tremayne Stephens, to find such an unsettled situation at running back.

If either Washington or Underwood turn out to be as productive as Stephens, who led the Pack in rushing for four straight seasons, including a 1,000-yard campaign in 1997, then O'Brien will be thrilled.

They both have limited experience. Washington ran for 76 yards on 21 carries as a true freshman last season. Underwood, who redshirted in '09, ran for 116 yards on 32 carries in 2008.

That leaves quarterback Russell Wilson, who ran for 260 yards, as the top returning rusher. The last time N.C. State's top returning rusher was a quarterback was 1952.

Not that O'Brien's particularly concerned about the backfield's talent level or their name recognition.

"They have to keep the quarterback from getting killed first," O'Brien said. "Both of them are capable of carrying the ball, it's the other things they have to work on."

The competition for the starting spot included sophomore Brandon Barnes until April 3. Barnes, one of O'Brien's top-rated recruits in his three years in Raleigh, dislocated an ankle during a team scrimmage. He had surgery the same day and is out indefinitely, according to O'Brien.

That leaves Underwood and Washington, with possible help from incoming freshmen Anthony Creecy (from Southern Durham) or Mustafa Greene.

Underwood's built more like an every-down back. At 5 feet 11 and 220 pounds, he has more size than Washington, who's 6-foot and 180 pounds.

O'Brien redshirted Underwood last season in anticipation of losing Baker to the NFL. Baker, who missed two seasons with a knee injury, could have petitioned the NCAA for a sixth season but chose to leave after a successful '09 season.

"[Underwood's] got good power, good vision, and he understands the system," O'Brien said. "Washington's a slasher. He showed signs last year. By playing him last year, it will help him."

Washington said the best thing the new running backs have going for them is a strong passing game. Wilson led the ACC with 31 touchdown passes and returns his top four targets, including three senior receivers.

Sophomore quarterback Mike Glennon has been prolific in the first two scrimmages subbing for Wilson, who's out this spring while playing baseball.

The running game has been less productive in the scrimmages. Walk-on Travis Leggett led all rushers in the most recent scrimmage with 35 yards on 15 carries.

"We have great wide receivers and two great quarterbacks," said Washington, who scored two touchdowns in a rout of Murray State last year. "They should open it up for us and let us run the ball successfully."

Washington is also confident the anonymous group won't remain that way.

"Give us time and the fans will know our names," Washington said.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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