While most think of Southern Miss’ prolific passing attack when discussing the offense, the Golden Eagles’ depth at running back is often overlooked. Running backs coach Lytrell Pollard believes that the Golden Eagles have three running backs that can make a difference in Ito Smith, George Payne and Tez Parks.
Junior halfback Ito Smith can do it all, and he may just be the best running back in the conference. Last season, Ito Smith was one of two Golden Eagles to rush for over 1,000 yards. The 5’9, 195 pound Mobile native averaged 6.6 yards per carry and led the Golden Eagles with 1,876 all-purpose yards. Smith scored 10 touchdowns and racked up 49 catches for 515 yards to finish fourth in receiving on the team. On Saturday, Smith carried the ball 36 times for 173 yards and a touchdown against Kentucky. He also caught five passes for 40 yards.
“Everyone knows about Ito [Smith] and what he can bring to the table,” running backs coach Lytrell Pollard said. “Ito is a guy you give it to him in space. He’s a complete back. When you look at his stat sheet, you would think he’s not a guy that can stand in there with the pass protection. He’s just as good as those big guys in pass protection.”
“Before the game, coach told us that nothing was going to be given to us,” Smith said. “We had to earn it. At halftime, that’s when adversity had struck. We knew that we needed to go back out and overcome it. We got the win and we did it.”
Redshirt junior George Payne missed the 2015 season with a knee injury, but he looked healthy Saturday as he established himself as the number two back for the Golden Eagles. At 6’0, 207 pounds, Payne is a much more physical back than Smith. In 2014, he rushed for six touchdowns and caught one in 10 games. Against Kentucky, Payne rushed for 100 yards on 16 carries, averaging over six yards per carry.
“Straight-line speed, he might be the fastest. He’s that change-of-pace guy,” Pollard said. “He’s comfortable now. He’s learned the game a lot more now because he sat out a year. Now he knows how to be a complete running back with his jump cuts, not always trying to run over people. But when he has to, he’ll try. And that’s the thing with him. When he wants to, he can.”
Tez Parks is a running back that is an actual change-of-pace back. Not because of exceptional speed or elusiveness, but because he offers a different variety of moves than Smith and Payne.
Whereas Payne can give you straight-line speed and run over you, Parks may elect to slip by you. Parks is not the biggest running back in the trio heading the ground game for the Golden Eagles, but he is also not the smallest. Smith may give you elusiveness and an ability to bounce outside, but Parks will be able to take a hit — then bounce outside for a big gain.
Parks will have to improve on his straight-line speed, but after trying to return from a knee injury from last season, he has time to make his presence known on the Golden Eagle football team.