Hunter, Tate Help Run the Show for U Football Team

Most effective football offenses are symbiotic organisms. Both a punishing ground game and a lethal aerial attack generally must work in concert to produce results.

After all, without a running back capable of picking up yards rushing, opposing defenses can simply lock up receivers and tee off on the quarterback. Conversely, without a legitimate pass game to keep opponents honest, they can simply stuff nine in the box and get in the backfield before the running back has a chance to accept the handoff.

It seems the Utah football team has finally figured this out.

A year removed from cycling through three under-achieving signal-callers, seeing one too many passes fall yards short of the intended target on a post route, and observing the subsequent consequence of opponents focusing all their energies upon stopping the U’s vaunted running game, things have finally changed.

Sophomore quarterback Lance Rice has settled into new coordinator Craig Ver Steeg’s quick-read system, senior receiver Cliff Russell has established himself as one of the best deep threats in the nation, and junior Josh Lyman has developed into a solid, dependable second option.

“We don’t want a team to come in and say that all they have to do is stop our run,” said junior wideout Devin Houston.

However, while the pass attack has made remarkable strides and turned into a legitimately viable scoring option, no one disputes that the strength of the Ute offense is still predicated upon its stable of horses in the backfield.

Simply put, the top priority of anyone wanting to slow down the Utes is slowing down the running backs.

Coordinators and their preferred schemes have come and gone, but for the better part of the last decade, the U offense has been fully centered around the quarterback’s ability to hand the ball off to whichever talent happens to be occupying the halfback spot.

With former Utes such as Jamal Anderson, Mike Anderson and Omar Bacon playing in the NFL, and the first two racking up a handful of personal hardware between them, it’s not really news to anyone when Ute coach Ron McBride comments that “We’ve had good runners here for 10 years.”

Thing is, though, it’s not any different now.

Adam Tate was Second Team All-MWC a year ago after finishing third in the conference in rushing yards (660) and rush yards per game (73.3), despite missing the year’s first two games waiting to get through the NCAA clearinghouse after transferring from Mt. San Antonio College. This season, Dameon Hunter is third in the conference and 16th in the nation in rushing, picking up 115.7 yards per game.

Behind the combined efforts of the duo, Utah ranks 23rd among the NCAA’s 117 Division I teams in rushing offense, at 198.8 yards per.

However, while this year has primarily seen Hunter earn most of the accolades (four games of at least 100 yards?including a career-best 177 versus a New Mexico team that was ranked second in the nation against the run, at the time), the U staff has no problem putting either in the lineup.

“They’re both big backs, they’re both strong, downhill runners?which is what you like,” McBride said. “I don’t have any hesitation playing either one of them.”

That’s an assessment the players themselves acknowledge.

“Every week, it could change. You’ve got to be on your toes, keep on moving, because if you stay at a standstill, someone’s going to pass you up,” Hunter said. “When I am out [of a game], we have another quality back in. Everyone here is quality for us.”

And while it might be easy for Tate to have a legit case of sour grapes, given his All Conference performance of a year ago, not to mention his No. 1 status on the depth charts for most of this year’s spring and summer practices, there apparently is no contention over who gets to start.

“Dameon worked hard in the offseason and he earned the spot, but Adam has supported him,” Rice said. “But there’s been no backbiting, he’s been very unselfish? That’s helped the team. The whole team has become unselfish. That’s one of the biggest differences between last year and this year.”

It hasn’t been easy for Tate, though, knowing that he didn’t so much lose the job, but still must come off the bench.

“I’ve got a competitive heart. I love to compete, so dropping from first to backup is really disappointing for me,” Tate said.

And while running backs coach Vincent White said, “They’re both playing about the same amount of time?it’s just that one of them starts,” Tate laughs at the notion, but says he’s learned to accept it.

“That’s very inaccurate? [Hunter’s] got double the carries I do. But when I get in, I’ve just got to do my job and help the team get [wins],” Tate said. “Anyone who’s competitive wants to start, wants to play more. But it’s something I’ve got to adjust to. I get to do different things to help the offense.”

There is a distinct benefit to having two players with so much ability.

“Dameon is a truly downhill runner; he’s not going to fake you out, he’s going to knock you over. Adam brings some slashing ability. That’s a huge advantage for us, because it means we’ve got a fresh guy on the field all the time,” White said. “That creates a lot of problems for defenses.”

“When you have that kind of talent at running back, defenses have to worry,” Rice added. “Both are very quality running backs and could be starting at any other school.”

Opposing defenses weren’t always so overmatched, however.

In spring of 2000, both Bacon and Mike Anderson saw their eligibility expire and the NFL come calling, and their successor was 5-foot-8-inch, 184-pound sophomore D’Shaun Crockett.

After rushing for 3,918 yards in his career at Oak Grove High School in San Jose, Calif.,?including 1,700 in his senior year alone?Crockett was a Blue Chip Top 100 recruit and tabbed as the next big thing in the vaunted U run game.

His small stature, however, didn’t let that happen.

“D’Shaun was the starter all through spring and fall practice, but in the one-back set, it’s tough for a small guy to do well,” McBride said. “We found out early that maybe that wasn’t his cup of tea.”

Crockett started the team’s first two games, but could muster only 91 yards on 32 carries (a paltry 2.8 ypc) before being reduced to playing on special teams and undergoing a conversion to corner back.

And while Crockett has since flourished?earning a starting spot in the U’s conference best defensive unit?the Utes were left without a proven runner at the time.

So McBride was forced to turn to a pair of highly touted juco transfers named Hunter and Tate.

“Those two guys, a year ago, were the two best [running backs] in junior college football,” McBride said. “We recruited them, and we were hoping to get one, but we were able to get both.”

It was not an immediately smooth transition taking over for the deposed Crockett.

Hunter never gained more than 65 yards in a game, and averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, though Tate finished strong, missing the team’s preseason practices and first two games meant that he “didn’t really get into a flow until the middle of the season,” according to McBride.

“I was kind of nervous. I said, ‘dang, I’m in Division I, now,'” Hunter said. “Once I settled in, it became frustrating because I wasn’t getting to play much. Being a big-time back in junior college, I came in and expected, ‘This is my spot?give it to me,’ and you just can’t do that, because there are so many other good recruits.”

One of whom was Tate. The battle for playing time between the two picked up this spring, and the team is the better off for it, Tate said.

“I enjoyed it?it helped raise the level of competition; we all had to work harder because there’s a lot of talent in the backfield,” he said. “As a result, our rush game is better this year.”

Of course, the talent isn’t limited to just Hunter and Tate. Transfer J.R. Peroulis, Edwin Benton, and juco walk-on Marty Johnson (who rushed for 94 yards against Utah State in the season-opener before suffering a bruised rib) have all added to the team’s depth at the position.

“The third guy is Peroulis, the fourth guy is Benton, then you’ve also got Marty Johnson?we’re sitting there with five pretty good guys,” McBride said.

And while the coach added that Johnson’s ribs would likely sideline him for the rest of the year and force the team to apply to the NCAA for a medical exception, there is a constant battle among the group to be the dominant player on the field.

It is a battle that Hunter says motivates him to keep improving and never be satisfied with what he’s done.

“It can always be taken away [so] it keeps me humble? I go into every game like it’s my last,” Hunter said. “I know that, if you don’t perform, then as fast as you were talked about, people can forget about you.”

In the meantime, though, Hunter and Tate are players that other teams can’t get out of their minds, players that opponents design their game plans around, figuring that, if you take away the running backs, you have stopped the Utes.

In last Saturday’s game versus Wyoming, the Cowboys came out aggressive against the run, holding Hunter to just 4 yards on 4 carries on the team’s opening series?”they were going to do everything they could to stop our run and force us to throw the ball,” McBride said.

Eventually, though, Hunter still wound up with 109 yards on 18 carries, prompting the coach to say “I didn’t realize we had that many.”

And while it was the Rice-to Russell bombs that eventually opened things up for the halfbacks, in the end, everyone knows?except for Hunter and Tate, perhaps?that the Utah offense runs through the backfield.

“It’s a challenge. If you’re making that much of an impact in a game? It’s kind of an honor for them to think that if they stop little old me, then they stop the Utes,” Hunter said. “But I think there are a lot of teams sadly mistaken about that. They’ve got to look at a whole lot more than just me.”

[email protected]