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UNC’s running back depth could be key to repeating ACC success

With surprising versatility in the backfield, UNC’s running backs may be the surprise of the season

NCAA Football: ACC Football Championship Game-Clemson vs North Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Elijah Hood enters the season as the unquestioned starting tailback in the UNC backfield. That's the reward when one begins to reach the heights of UNC legends Don McCauley and Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice. However, for UNC to continue to find success on the ground, they will have to rely on the diverse talents of its two senior back-up tailbacks, T.J. Logan and Khris Francis

All three players bring a different skill set to the backfield. Hood proved last season that he can be a workhorse capable of handling over 200 carries. Logan is a Swiss army knife, proving his worth as a return man, receiver out of the backfield, and traditional tailback. Francis has had a more quiet career, but fully recovered from a torn ACL and MCL during his sophomore season, presents an intriguing hybrid of the other two. We'll take a brief look at Hood, and explore the possibilities of the other running backs.

Elijah Hood: Junior 6'0", 220 Lbs

I'm not going to spend much time breaking down Hood's game. You can find that almost anywhere. He's a powerful force and weight room legend, dating back to his freshman year. Now with four returning teammates on the offensive line and a year to adjust to being one of the offensive focal pints, he is in position to assert his superiority at the top of the ACC running back totem pole.

Hood is that rare combination of speed and strength that will push the defensive line into the end zone, but can also break open a 60 yard run up the middle of the field. Highly touted as a consensus top-10 running back out of high school, and having originally committed to Notre Dame, Hood found his groove last year. His 2014 freshman year showed glimpses of his potential, but adjusting to college ball is difficult. A few injuries along the way didn't help.

However, last season he only needed 219 carries to average a ho-hum 6.7 yards per carry. That amounted to 1463 rushing yards, and 17 touchdowns. It’s scary to think what he could have accomplished if: A) he had not seen reduced touches due to so many blow outs and B) the coaching staff remembered that he's really good at football. Which they forgot at times, like against South Carolina. Yes. I'm still miffed.

So in honor of that, I propose a new game. Every offensive play UNC performs inside the 10 yard line they must accomplish two tasks:

1) Give the ball to Elijah Hood

2) Score a touchdown

If they do not meet those BOTH of those criteria on any given play, you must take a drink of whatever beverage you may be holding. If UNC settles for a field goal or turns the ball over, you take two swigs. It's safe to say had we played that game last year against the Gamecocks, some of us may not have woken up for a few days.

Let's all raise a glass and hope that a few individual UNC rushing records are broken this autumn.

T.J. Logan: Senior 5'10", 190lbs

Another top-10 running back out of high school (publication dependent), T.J. Logan has had a successful career at UNC in all facets of the game. His first two seasons were hampered by nagging injuries, but as last season progressed he finally appeared comfortable in the offense. Logan and Hood began to co-exist effectively, and the UNC rushing attack had a true 1-2 punch (not counting Marquise Williams).

However, with Hood firmly entrenched as the lead back, the opportunities to showcase his rushing ability will going be limited. Instead, it's fair to assume he will continue to be used in all facets of the multi-option UNC offense. See some stats below.

2013-2014: 533 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 124 receiving yards, 511 return yards, 2 TDs.

2014-2015: 583 rushing yards, 3 TDs, 144 receiving yards, 205 return yards

2015-2016: 400 rushing yards, 5 TDs, 151 receiving yards, 1 TD, 492 return yards

You'll notice that Logan has been a consistent triple-threat since he arrived. In fact, two of the past three seasons he had over 1,000 all-purpose yards (and was only 68 yards shy in 2014). His talents provide the perfect change of pace in UNC's offense. But do not be fooled - his pace is still extremely dangerous. He has acceleration and elusiveness that make a game-changing play possible every time he touches the ball.

That's not hyperbole. Go back and watch his two 40+ yard touchdown runs against N.C. State. Remember his zig-zag touchdown reception against Clemson? Don't forget his kick-off return against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl as a freshman. He is a threat to score with every rush, reception, or return.

So, what does that mean for this season?

As most acknowledge, Mitch Trubisky is more accurate in the short-passing game than his predecessor. Trubisky, while also plenty mobile, doesn't have quite the rushing ability of Marquise Williams. Those two factors should dictate an increase in flat/cross/hook routes out of the backfield. UNC fans can also expect an increase in check down and dump off passes - especially against an overly athletic and talented team who will be able to push the offensive line back on their heels. Maybe like....Florida State?

I also won't completely discount a noticeable impact in the running game. Williams' departure left over 900 rushing yards on the field. Those yards can obviously be redistributed in numerous ways, but it's reasonable to think Trubisky won't reach those levels. Depending how the offense is molded to the new quarterback's strengths, there is potential for a surprising increase in Logan's total rushing yards.

Now that he's fully healthy, with a firm grasp of the offense, I'd focus expectations on an increase in Logan's receiving production from either the tailback or slot positions. With a loaded WR corps that is capable of stretching the field, that will also open up those underneath passing lanes. If he can continue to bring his explosiveness to the return game and provide occasional relief for Hood, it is not a stretch to expect Logan to be the difference maker in more than a couple of games this year.

Khris Francis: Senior 5'9" 210lbs

Francis presents a hybrid of Hood and Logan. He's not as tall as either, but he outweighs Logan by 20 lbs. Lacking the size of Hood, and the explosiveness of Logan, he has struggled to find a role in the backfield. Unfortunately a torn ACL, MCL, and meniscus late in 2014 hampered his ability to develop last season. With the emergence of Hood and Logan he became buried on the depth chart. Nevertheless, all is not lost.

It can take over a year for some players to recover from one torn ligament and return to their previous level of fitness. Khris had to recover from his entire knee essentially exploding. Last season Francis was likely still trying to find a role in the offense, and get his body back into form. That's a tough task on an 11-1 team. Now two years removed from the injury, and one year removed from getting back to full speed, Francis is in the perfect position to be a key contributor to this year's team.

Last season it was Logan who often got the call to give Hood a breather. This year, Francis could hear his number called more often. Remember those 900 yards that Williams left for everyone to fight over? If Logan's role expands into more of a pass-catcher and slot receiver, there could be a void as Hood's back-up .

With Romar Morris graduating, there are currently no other experienced tailbacks on the roster. Francis should have ample opportunity to earn those carries, and hopefully capitalize on them. Especially early in the year when the coaching staff may want to keep Hood and Logan fresh for the final weeks of the season.

As a runner, he's big enough to gain a few extra yards after contact, but won't move a pile across the goal line. He's quick enough to exploit a hole or get to the edge, but not quite explosive enough to turn the corner and make a drive-altering play.

In the passing game he's strong enough to throw a quick block on an incoming pass rusher, but won't stop anybody in their tracks. Yet, he's fast enough to release into the flat and give the QB a check down option to keep a drive alive.

In short, Francis is the perfect complement to Hood. Francis can garner respect from a defense for a few plays at a time, but won't require the opposition to make a game plan specifically for him. I'd venture to guess his carries will be between the 20 yard lines, with the occasional red zone appearance. There is nothing wrong with that. With only three tailbacks, this team will need desperately need his talents to keep the defense honest. Injury free, I look forward to him having a memorable senior season.

UNC has an unusual embarrassment of riches at tailback. Three upper classmen. Three skill sets. A plethora of capabilities. The wide receivers are going to receive the attention, and Mitch Trubisky will (hopefully) settle into the spotlight. But the running backs are more than just the Elijah Hood show.

Francis and Logan provide a tantalizing blend of skills in the backfield to keep defenses guessing. They add extra layer of intrigue to an already complex, diverse offense. Facing Florida State and Georgia on the road this year, UNC will need all those talents if they want to return to the ACC Championship. If you're looking for a surprise in the UNC offense this year, the back-up tailbacks are where I would look.