Running back by committee, new linemen seek to improve Indians offense

Updated: August 26, 2003, 1:34 PM ET

JONESBORO, Ark. -- Danny Smith came out of nowhere last year to post Arkansas State's best rushing season in school history.

Smith, who entered 2002 with just 244 career yards, rushed for 1,390 to give the Indians a 1,000-yard rusher for the third straight season -- the first such streak ever in Jonesboro.

If coach Steve Roberts' offense is going to make it four, someone out of a packed group of five will have distinguish himself early.

"We have listed five starters at tailback at this particular time," Roberts said. "The starter will be who we feel like the first play call will be, more than it will be the starter."

Antonio Warren, Clint Roy, Shermar Bracey, Terrence Dunbar and Chris Easley enter this week's season opener at Texas A&M on Saturday with an equal chance of being on the field for that first play.

Smith, the Sun Belt Conference offensive player of the year, had just 83 yards after the first two games, so Warren took most of the carries in Arkansas State's first victory last year. He carried the ball 32 times for 193 yards in a 21-19 win over Tulsa and earned conference player of the week honors.

Warren had 318 yards in a three-game span before cracking his ribs against Tennessee-Martin, and the injury slowed him for the rest of the season.

"Anytime you get hurt, it's a downfall for you," said Warren, who finished with 554 yards and three touchdowns. "Danny helped me out and everything happened for a reason. I'm just looking forward to the future."

Bracey, the biggest of the five at 6-3, 222 pounds, hasn't played football since 2000, when he led Rison to the Class AA title by rushing for 1,922 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Dunbar and Easley were both redshirted in their first year at Arkansas State. Roy, a 6-2, 225-pound sophomore from Little Rock, redshirted after transferring from Northwestern State with Roberts.

"We have some young guys that we really think can come on and do a good job for us," running backs coach David Gunn said. "We have five guys and we have five options."

Bracey, who was recruited by Arkansas last year and was the Arkansas state champion in the 100 and 200 meters in 2001, has the best breakaway speed of the group. At the Class AA meet, he beat Clarendon's Cedric Houston, now Tennessee's starting tailback, and at the Meet of Champions he beat Wynne's DeAngelo Williams, Memphis' starting tailback.

"With the ball in his hands, there's no question about it -- he's a player," Gunn said. "He's catching on to some things like protection, things you have to do when you don't have the football. He has an unlimited amount of potential."

Another question mark for the Indians this year will be their offensive line. The line lost two four-year starters in John Crossley and GarryJohnson, a two-time All-Sun Belt selection.

"We're going to have to work together," said returning starting center Tab Slaughter from Wynne. "Everybody is out here battling for a job."

Slaughter will have former tight end Frank Arritt beside him at right guard and Steven Gibbs, a spot starter for two seasons, will be at left guard. Kimani Jones returns at right tackle, while junior college transfer Matt Roth takes over at left tackle.

Roberts said he's looking for improvement from the backups before the line is solidified.

Junior quarterback Elliot Jacobs was the beneficiary of an experienced offensive line last year. He was sacked just six times and the Indians only allowed seven sacks on the year, leading the Sun Belt.

The protection and Jacobs ability to avoid the rush allowed him to have a successful first season as Arkansas State's starter. He led the Indians (6-7, 3-3 Sun Belt) to six victories for the first time since 1995.

He completed 136 of 258 passes (52.7 percent) for 1,751 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Five of those interceptions came against San Jose State and Illinois.

Jacobs has never played with Roth protecting his backside, but he's confident that the reworked line will protect him. He's also more confident in himself after working in Roberts' offense for a full year.

"It's incomparable how I feel now with how I felt last year," said Jacobs, who was an option quarterback at El Dorado. "Just knowing the system is the main thing. I feel like a coach having to know what everyone's doing in certain situations."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index