Jordan Johnson was the Class A state Player of the Year as a junior and senior and a first-team All-Western New York and All-State selection as a senior at Sweet Home. At some colleges, he would be a focal point player.
By all accounts, the Sweet Home redshirt freshman is sixth on the depth chart at the University at Buffalo. He didn’t whiff on a blocking assignment, fumble or run an incorrect route. His problem was that he came to a program with five other talented tailbacks on its roster.
“It can be a crazy backfield,” said senior tailback Branden Oliver. “We can have one of the best backfields in the nation.”
Few teams in the Mid-American Conference have collected more depth at one position than UB, where their unit is blessed with speed, power and versatility.
There are two seniors, a redshirt freshman and plenty in between. Oliver will likely leave as the school’s career rushing leader, a mark that could fall quickly if the youngsters have any say in the matter.
So welcome to the new Tailback U.
“People talk about me being the guy, but I don’t have to be the guy,” Oliver said. “You have Anthone Taylor, Devin Campbell, Jordan Johnson, Brandon Murie and James Potts, who is coming back strong and healthy. We’ve got a lot of depth. We can rotate.”
At the top of the heap is Oliver, who enters the season 626 yards shy of breaking James Starks’ career rushing mark. Despite missing five games a year ago because of injury, Oliver still led the team in rushing with 821 yards.
Filling Oliver’s role in his absence was Campbell, who rushed for 502 yards and 176 yards receiving in three starts. When Campbell needed a rest, there wasn’t much of a drop-off when the Bulls went to Murie, the former walk-on who racked up 477 all-purpose yards as a tailback and wide receiver.
Then there are the players with potential in Potts, Taylor and Johnson. On his second career carry, Potts raced 49 yards for a touchdown against Morgan State but tore his ACL on the play and missed the rest of the season. He’s sitting out this spring but expects to be ready for training camp in the summer.
A power back, Taylor also missed last season with a knee injury but is expected to be a change-of-pace back this year. That leaves Johnson, who might have been the featured back at Army, Navy or Akron – the other schools that recruited him – trying to find his niche.
“Competition is great and we all bring something different to the table,” Johnson said. “I’m playing running back but at the same time I’m playing fullback and slot receiver. We all do different things.”
Running backs coach Matt Simon wants quality backups to strengthen the offensive production.
“I kind of see the Devin Campbells and the James Pottses and the Anthone Taylors as being those kind of guys, to being really good accent players to Bo Oliver in our offense,” Simon said. “There’s only one football but they create some real diversity in our offensive attack.”
But there’s a delicate balance when juggling talent and egos, although Simon, a longtime assistant in the NFL and college, has experience with the challenge.
There’s a picture in Simon’s office from his days with the San Diego Chargers where he’s surrounded by six running backs, most notably LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.
The elusive Tomlinson was the primary back, but on third and short the ball went to Turner for more power. Sproles became a Pro Bowler on special teams and played in the team’s third-down package.
The first thing Simon does when he meets the group for the first time is get them to understand the team concept.
“These guys are very, very good and they’ve had the ball in their hands all their life,” Simon said. “But teams win championships, not one player. It can’t be about one of us it has to be about all of us. Every one in this deal has to figure out how they fit into this piece of the puzzle.”
Once during a position meeting at UB, Simon asked the players, “Who was a better athlete on your high school football team than you were?” Each one said they were the best.
“You should have been, that’s why you’re here,” Simon told them. “If you’re one of the best athletes on our football team right now, then you should help us in a lot of different ways because there’s only one football.
“We already have an established guy who’s been a pretty good football player and to take the ball out of his hands all the time would be foolish.”
Simon asks the players to embrace other roles such as blocking and special teams, until they become the primary ball carrier. When Simon was an intern with the Los Angeles Rams, head coach John Robinson told him that Marcus Allen played fullback for Charles White at Southern California until it was his time to dot the I for the Trojans. Allen had to learn to be unselfish.
When Simon interned with the Denver Broncos, Terrell Davis was the best player in kickoff coverage before he became the starting running back.
“Here’s the funny part: Every game he went over to the head coach and said, ‘I can still cover kicks,’ ” Simon said. “The bottom line was he realized how important special teams were to the football team and he didn’t want to see them suffer and struggle. If the coach wanted him on there, he would have done it in a heartbeat.”
Oliver is working on special teams more than he has before because coach Jeff Quinn wants to see improvement with the unit. Campbell and Taylor could see more time as returners, as will Potts. So far, everyone has bought in.
“They’re all drinking the Kool Aid,” Simon said. “I believe they will win because of it.”