SAN DIEGO — Through the years, running backs at San Diego State might have felt like wide receivers in a wishbone offense.
There are many other places where they would feel considerably more useful. How about the University of Michigan, Ohio State or Oklahoma for starters?
Running backs in Coach Doug Scovil's system spend a lot of time watching quarterbacks put the ball in the air until short-yardage situation.
"We use the running game when we have to," said senior Casey Brown, who has the inside track for the starting fullback spot. Off his impressive showing in spring practice, junior Chris Hardy is the leading candidate to start at halfback.
The Aztecs averaged 95.1 yards a game on the ground and 211.8 yards in the air. Part of that was because the Aztecs had to play catch up so often, but most of it can be attributed to Scovil's offensive philosophy.
Unfortunately for the running backs, the three most memorable plays of 1984 were all forgettable. Each resulted in a fumble.
Remember Brown's fumble at the three-yard line in the final quarter of SDSU's 18-15 loss to UCLA, and Dan Gaston's fumble at the 18-yard line later in that game? Possibly the most devastating was Hardy's fumble at the two-yard line against Oklahoma State. The Aztecs trailed, 16-14, with 1:45 to play. They lost 19-16.
Two positive plays that made the highlight film were Brown's 68-yard touchdown run against Nevada Las Vegas and Hardy's 45-yard jaunt against UTEP.
However, electrifying runs are a rarity at SDSU. Runners such as Auburn's Bo Jackson don't sign letters of intent at SDSU.
"It's very hard to recruit blue-chip running backs in a passing system," running back coach Dave Atkins said. "They have their eyes set on the Rose Bowl and the Pac-10."
There is no Student Body Right at SDSU.
But Aztec running backs did have their number called more frequently last season, and Scovil is intent on having a two-dimensional offense.
"I hope the work we put into the running game last year will help this year," Scovil said. "The running was improved last year, and hopefully, we'll be pretty balanced this year."
Atkins said the Aztecs plan to keep six running backs. They include three returning varsity players, a transfer, a freshman redshirt and a walk-on. They will be asked to make up for the losses of Gaston and Mike Waters, both of whom were seniors last year. Waters led the club in rushing with 704 yards on 180 carries and 5 touchdowns, and Gaston gained 220 yards on 51 attempts.
Atkins is encouraged by the offensive line and the versatility of his backs.
"I like the all-purpose backs who carry the ball around 10 times a game and catch it five or six times," Atkins said.
Who will those guys be this season?
Casey Brown (Sr., FB, 6-1, 205)--"Touchdown Brown" is expected to be the starting fullback for the Aztecs this season.
"It has been a long time," said Brown, who is starting his fifth season with the program. During that time, the La Jolla High graduate has started at halfback and fullback. "It's a long time coming to be The Man. There's a little pressure, and I like it."
Brown gained his nickname for his short bolts into the end zone. He might gain only 40 yards in a game, but that often includes a touchdown run. His prowess for scoring encourages ribbing from teammates. They get the first downs near midfield and Brown gets the glory at the goal line.
He scored four touchdowns on runs of one, two, four and seven yards against Texas El Paso last season. Last season, he gained 252 yards on 51 attempts for a 4.9-yard average, had 15 receptions and led the team in scoring with 10 touchdowns.
Scovil said Brown improved his blocking during spring practice and generally had an excellent spring.
"He's not going to ever win the Heisman Trophy, but he gets the job done," Atkins said. "Casey is a team football player who has been around."
Chris Hardy (Jr., HB, 5-9, 175)--Hardy's speed has never been a question mark. Now, he has strength and bulk to go with his jitterbug moves.
"I really admire Chris Hardy," Atkins said. "He came in as an I-back who was benching 265 pounds. He benched 385 pounds this past spring. That will make him be a better blocker and will enable him to take a pounding. It will also make him more confident. Now, he'll know he can do the job."
Hardy's impressive showing in spring practice has made him the leading candidate to start at halfback. In the Red-Black game, he took a Todd Santos swing pass 56 yards for a touchdown.
"He showed signs of maturing and understanding the offense and of being a team player who knows his part in the offense," Atkins said.
Hardy gained 133 yards on 21 carries for a 6.3 average last season, and that included a 130-yard game against UTEP. He returned 12 kickoffs for a 21.2 average. And he had that fumble against Oklahoma State.
"Dropping the ball was Chris' fault, but there were two other mistakes on the play," Atkins said. "That play is over, and he learned a lesson from that game.