By The Associated Press
HATTIESBURG — Southern Miss tailback Jamal Woodyard is working on new nickname.
Because of his 5-foot-8, 220-pound frame his coaches call the red-shirt freshman “fat back.” He has performed well since taking over the starting duties and if he breaks off one more long run against East Carolina this weekend, offensive coordinator Blake Anderson has a reward for him.
The letter “S” — making his nickname “Fast Back.”
“I gotta make it happen this weekend … gotta get that S,” Woodyard said.
If Woodyard gets his “S” it would help Southern Miss get a much-needed “W.”
The Golden Eagles (7-1, 3-1 Conference USA) and ECU (4-4, 3-1) are tied for first in the East Division.
Woodyard, a red-shirt sophomore, started the season third on the depth chart behind starter Kendrick Hardy and backup Desmond Johnson.
Johnson went down with a knee injury in the season-opener against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 3, and Hardy left an Oct. 1 win over Rice with a shoulder injury.
Woodyard missed an early October win over Navy, but in two games since his return Southern Miss has rolled past SMU and UTEP by a combined score of 58-16, behind a dominate running game.
USM backs ran for 187 and 260 in back-to-back weeks, and the Yazoo City, Miss., has led the way.. He averaged 8.9 yards a carry and had a 55-yard scoring run against SMU and a 68-yarder vs the Miners.
“I’m happy to be contributing,” Woodyard said. “When those guys went down I knew it would be my chance to step up, so that’s what I have tried to do. Tried to step up and play to the best of my ability and make some big plays.”
His rediscovered extra step has led to some big plays that have surprised more than the casual fan.
“To be honest, I didn’t know he had that kind of speed,” Southern Miss quarterback Austin Davis said. “I knew he was a good running back, but I didn’t know he could go like that.”
That explosiveness has sparked the Golden Eagles, but it’s something coach Larry Fedora and Anderson were looking forward to seeing, just not this early.
Woodyard stole the show at USM’s 2010 spring game after sitting out a red-shirt year with a nagging ankle injury. He rushed for 111 yards on 10 carries, and that more than caught his coaches’ eyes.
“He was the surprise of spring camp,” Fedora said. “He got his body in shape and he wasn’t fat anymore. Then he came back in the summer and looked extremely good in camp. We didn’t know he’d get this much work, but he’s doing about what we expected him to do.”
The tailbacks’ bad luck hasn’t rubbed off on the offensive line, which has remained 100 percent healthy with the exception of right tackle Thomas Edenfield, who missed two weeks with a knee injury and has since split time with Jason Weaver.
That consistent group has helped the Golden Eagles to nearly 480 yards of offense a game, good enough for 18th among FBS schools, and it could be poised for another big day Saturday when USM travels to play East Carolina in Greenville, N.C.
East Carolina has improved from 120th out of 120 FBS schools in total defense a year ago to 56th so far in 2011, but they are still allowing nearly 190 yards a game on the ground.
The Pirates’ three-down defensive scheme is similar to the one Southern Miss backup Jeremy Hester found success against in a 63-35 win over Navy on Oct. 8.
“It’s something we’re used to and something we feel like we can take advantage of running the ball,” Woodyard said. “They are supposed to be pretty good defensively, but we should be able to use their scheme against them in the run game.”