USF has re­placed RB Mar­lon Mack with a dou­bly-pun­ish­ing combo of Dar­ius Tice and D’Ernest John­son.

Tampa Bay Times - - Sports - BY JOEY KNIGHT Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — Even as coaches and peers rave about USF se­nior Dar­ius Tice’s mo­tor, his room­mate on road trips wouldn’t mind it idling ev­ery now and again.

Be it at mid­field or mid­night, Tice can get revved up.

“Man, he does not stop talk­ing,” fel­low tail­back D’Ernest John­son said. “I try to go to sleep on him some­times, he’ll talk me to death, man.”

Some­where in that noc­tur­nal vis­ual, irony lurks. Nine months af­ter three-time 1,000-yard rusher Mar­lon Mack an­nounced he was by­pass­ing his se­nior year for the NFL, no one at USF — well, al­most no one — is los­ing sleep over the Bulls’ run game.

The John­son-Tice ro­ta­tion has been that ef­fec­tive.

“You’re see­ing two guys that are com­pet­ing there, be­cause if you watch one get a big run, it’s like the next time the next guy comes in, he wants to get a big run,” coach Char­lie Strong said. “They’re run­ning through de­fend­ers, they’re pun­ish­ing de­fend­ers, which you like to

see with a run­ning back.”

In the past two games, Tice (from Mi­ami) and John­son (from Immokalee) both have run for at least 100 yards. In the sea­son opener at San Jose State, both eclipsed 90.

En­ter­ing Satur­day’s game at East Carolina (1-3, 1-0 AAC), Tice ranks fourth in the con­fer­ence with 93.2 rush­ing yards per game. John­son is sev­enth at 80.2.

“They had (de­par­tures) at run­ning back, which you re­ally can’t tell with John­son and Tice,” East Carolina coach Scot­tie Mont­gomery said.

They’re equally tough to dis­tin­guish with­out jersey num­bers. Both are listed at 5 feet 10, are es­sen­tially the same size (John­son’s listed at 210, Tice at 205), and pos­sess a north-south run­ning style.

Through four games for USF (4-0, 1-0), John­son, the more ver­sa­tile of the two (66 ca­reer catches, 3,364 ca­reer all-pur­pose yards) has started and worked the first two pos­ses­sions. Tice fol­lows for one or two pos­ses­sions be­fore John­son is re-in­serted.

The ro­ta­tion fluc­tu­ates mildly from there, but their re­spec­tive work­loads — and num­bers — are strik­ingly sim­i­lar. Tice has 373 yards and six touch­downs on 63 car­ries. John­son has 321 yards and two touch­downs on 76 at­tempts.

“I’d say D’Ernest is a guy that can do ev­ery­thing, that’s why we call him ‘Junk­yard Dog,’ ” quar­ter­back Quin­ton Flow­ers said.

“He can catch if you want him to catch. He can throw if you want him to throw. He can run, he can make good cuts. I’d say Dar­ius Tice, he’s a guy that goes down­hill. He’s gonna pun­ish you, he’s gonna hurt you.”

Yet suc­cess with such an ap­proach re­quires more than sturdy frames or com­ple­men­tary styles. Myr­iad fac­tors — not the least of which are mild egos — have con­verged to make this ro­ta­tion for­mi­da­ble.

Credit of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ster­lin Gil­bert and run­ning backs coach Shaun King with de­vis­ing a ro­ta­tion that ap­pears to keep both play­ers fresh with­out keep­ing them off-rhythm. Credit the of­fen­sive line, which seems to have con­gealed af­ter a shaky start.

And credit the will­ing­ness of John­son and Tice to give this two-headed sys­tem a fair shake. Then again, any ques­tions about the ego of ei­ther were put to rest long ago, when both stayed the course — in­stead of trans­fer­ring — af­ter Mack es­tab­lished him­self as the Bulls’ bell cow back.

Not once, Strong said, has one grum­bled when re­placed.

“The thing about those two guys, they have such a great re­la­tion­ship with one an­other,” Strong said. “It’s not like when a guy comes in (the other says), ‘Hey, stay out,’ or one of those things. Usu­ally you see that.”

Back to the room­mate thing. Tice ac­knowl­edges he’s talk­a­tive but only to “hype up” John­son for the up­com­ing game. Not that John­son is with­out his quirks.

“He watches foot­ball all day. He’ll find foot­ball (on TV),” Tice said. “I’ll be like, ‘Man, you can put on Martin, you can put on TNT, let’s watch a movie.’ One thing about him, he’s gonna find a way to watch foot­ball — all day.”

At least they’ve learned to co-ex­ist where it mat­ters.

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