RENO - Mike Ball's eyes lit up like an energized neon sign on Virginia Street. The smiles of Lampford Mark and Stefphon Jefferson could be seen from Reno all the way to their California hometowns of Fresno and Visalia.
The Nevada Wolf Pack's starting running back job is wide open for the first time in four years and the Three Horsemen of Mackay Stadium couldn't be happier.
"There's going to be a battle all camp long," Mark said. "Everyone wants that No. 1 spot."
"We're all after the same thing," Ball said.
"We have so many running backs," Jefferson said. "And we have a lot of guys coming back and new guys coming in. There's going to be a lot of competition. It's going to be exciting."
There was no doubt the last three seasons where the bulk of the carries would go. They belonged to Vai Taua and the Lompoc, Calif., product became one of the most productive backs in the nation with 4,400 yards and 44 touchdowns the last three seasons.
"He was so patient as a runner," Jefferson said. "He was so smart as a runner. That's what I want to take from him, his patience and his intelligence on the field."
Playing behind Taua, patience is something Mark, Ball and Jefferson were forced to learn.
"You just have to take advantage of the opportunities you get and help the team," Mark said.
Mark and Ball did exactly that the past two (Ball) and three (Mark) seasons. Jefferson, just a sophomore this year, got just three carries a year ago and scored a touchdown against Colorado State.
Mark and Ball, though, have already been solid contributors to the Pack's running game behind Taua. Mark rushed for 182 yards in 2008, 376 in 2009 and 413 a year ago. He had 114 yards in a game against San Jose State in 2009 and 116 against Idaho last year.
Ball had one of the greatest days ever by a Wolf Pack back in 2009 when he rushed for 184 yards and five touchdowns against UNLV.
The only difference is that they want to put up those numbers on a weekly basis this year.
"The competition is very stiff," Mark said. "We all want to be the number one guy but nobody knows how it will turn out."
And that includes Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault. The Pack head coach is as excited to learn who will emerge as his top back as anyone.
"It's a great group," said Ault, who also includes wet-behind-the-earns freshman Kendall Brock, Lawrence Hall, Anthony Knight and Nathan Lytle and junior Nick Hale in his stable of thoroughbred Pack backs. "Brock and Knight are as good a pair of freshman as we've ever brought in here. I want one guy to emerge as number one."
Ault, though, is keeping all of his options open. Mark is now a senior and has never been the top guy. Ball is a junior but he's also the number one kickoff returner. Jefferson has three carries of experience on his resume.
It's entirely possible one guy won't separate himself enough to be what Ault likes to call a "Nevada Back," a guy who carries the ball 18-25 times, rarely fumbles, almost always gets positive yardage, plays through pain and injury and is extremely reliable.
"If we have to spread it around among two or three guys, I'm not afraid to do that," Ault said. "You would rather have one guy be the top guy and that's the way we've always done it. But we're just going to have to see how it plays out. It's going to be interesting."
The Pack backs are not a selfish lot. Yes, they all want to be the alpha wolf, but they also know that the strength of the wolf is in the pack.
"We all bring something different to the table," the 5-10, 215-pound Ball said. "We all have our strengths. It also might come down to strategy, which type of back works best against certain teams. We're just going to have to see how it all works out. But we'll all get our carries."
Ball said he's ready to make the transition from a complementary back to a big-game back.
"I have to do it," Ball said. "It's all about conditioning. I can do it."
Ault said he plays on using a variety of one-back and two-back formations this year. All of the backs will be used, no matter how the depth chart shakes out on game day.
"How it all plays out, nobody can answer right now," the 6-1, 200-pound Mark said. "But we're all good running backs. They've always had one guy as the No. 1 guy here. That's the tradition here. But this year might be different."
The difference between No. 1 and No. 2 and even No. 3 might only be a couple carries a game.
"It's like the coaches tell us, 'We're trying to build depth. We have to have depth. We need all of you to contribute.' We're all going to have our chance to contribute."
And that's just fine with all three of them.
"With so many good backs, and everybody getting an opportunity, that will keep everyone healthy and fresh," the 5-11, 200-pound Jefferson said. "I just want to go out there and produce and help this team and do my part. That's all that matters. You have to produce when you get the chance."
Last year's stats:
Lampford Mark 55 carries 414 yards 3 TDS
Mike Ball 38 carries 264 yards 4 TDS