By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (August 24, 2016) — Since he was hired in December, Todd Whitten has listed finding quality running backs as one of his top recruiting priorities.
Two have arrived at Tarleton State during preseason camp, and both come with impressive junior college resumes.
Tramaine Batten is a 5-9, 208 pound slasher from Highland Community College in Kansas, and Curtis McGregor, a former Houston-area high school star, is a 5-9, 225 pound bruiser from Bakersfield College in California. Both have been turning heads in practice, Batten since first taking the field last Thursday, and McGregor since hitting the field this week after arriving on Saturday.
Batten scored twice in a scrimmage Saturday morning at Tarleton Memorial Stadium, once on the ground and again on a pass out of the backfield. McGregor showed off his vision and tackle-breaking ability Tuesday evening.
“Both guys were very productive junior college players. They have proven themselves at what I would consider a high level of football,” explained Whitten Wednesday morning. “Most of the junior college leagues around the country, if a guy can rush for 800 to a thousand yards in one of those leagues, he’s probably a quality back.”
Batten was good enough to receive interest from Kansas, while McGregor earned attention from Houston. Now, both are at Tarleton.
Whitten agrees Batten is more of the scatty, quick type and McGregor more the tough yardage type guy. But that doesn’t mean Batten won’t lower his shoulder, or that McGregor doesn’t have the ability to make would-be tacklers miss.
“That’s about right, that’s a pretty good general analysis,” said the winningest head coach in Tarleton football history as he begins his third stint on the Stephenville campus. “That and they both have good hands. They have proven already in the short time they have been here that they can be more than just functional or serviceable as receivers in the passing game.”
Whitten pointed out the junior college ranks have produced some good Tarleton running backs through the years. Guys such as Olan Coleman and Chavis McCollister, crucial pieces on the first Lone Star Conference co-championship and NCAA playoff team at Tarleton in 2001. And Derrick Ross, who rushed for 1,560 yards in Whitten’s last season on campus, helping the Texans back to the national playoffs in 2004.
“Over the years, I’ve had a lot of good luck with junior college backs,” Whitten said. “They generally come in heavily tested at a high level, especially some of the good junior college leagues in places like California and Texas.”
Whitten can’t emphasize enough what having a set quality backs does for an offense.
“It just gives you a chance to be able to go and win in some tough situations. Once in a while you have to run the ball effectively,” explained Whitten. “Maybe it’s just a little bit of crucial yardage, even when the defense is lined up in way that says you shouldn’t be able to do it and you still ask your offensive line guys and the running back to go get those tough yards. You have to turn into a physical bunch to do that, and oftentimes you have to ask running backs to get that on their own.
“A good stable of running backs is real critical if you’re going to be good on offense,” he added. “And oftentimes, those guys take a beating, especially in a league as tough as the LSC. A lot of times you can’t make it through the season with one feature guy.”
Whitten has seen that exact scenario play out before, in 2001, to be specific, during a conference championship run that led to Tarleton reaching the national quarterfinals.
“We made it through the (2004) season with Derrick Ross, but I remember Olan Coleman and Chavis McCollister both being banged up (in 2001) and Alester Givens, who was our third back, stepping up and becoming a big time player.”
“It takes a stable, that’s a tough, very physically demanding position,” Whitten added. “We knew we needed to have a group of quality backs, not just one or two, and I feel like we have that now.”
He basically has five to choose from following the addition of Batten and McGregor.
Senior Joseph Sadler rushed 90 times for 588 yards last season, an average of 6.5 per carry with eight touchdowns. Sadler came to Tarleton as a Division I-FCS transfer from Incarnate Word, where he saw limited action in two seasons.
In his senior season at Devine in 2011, Sadler rushed for 3,887 yards and scored 451 points to break the 58-year old Texas high school single-season scoring record held by the legendary Kenneth Hall.
Junior Jabari Anderson, a Dallas-area product from Wylie East, rushed 101 times for 621 yards and 10 scores for Tarleton last season. That’s an average of 6.1 yards per carry. But Anderson has been sidelined by injury during training camp.
Redshirt freshman Dondrei Williams, a load at 6-0, 235 pounds, scored twice in a scrimmage Saturday, once through the air and once on the ground. At 6A Alief Hastings – in the Houston area – Williams rushed for almost six yards per carry in 2014 after being named district newcomer of the year in 2013.
Even if all those backs don’t see the ball on offense in a game, Whitten says there are number of ways they can help the team, specifically on special teams.
“Kickoff return especially,” he said. “I feel like having a physical running back back there is better than a receiver, though there have been receivers who do a great job of it. Myself, I’d prefer to have a tailback on the special teams.”