RENO - The Nevada Wolf Pack's crowd at running back next fall might resemble an American Idol audition.
"We're going to have a lot of competition," Wolf Pack running backs coach Jim Mastro said. "It's going to be interesting."
And, like American Idol, which crowns America's next big pop star every year, the Wolf Pack wants to name its next big running back star.
"We want to find one guy," Mastro said. "That's what Coach (Chris) Ault wants and that's what I want. We always want to find that one guy."
That one guy the past three years has been Vai Taua. Taua, a senior in 2010, rushed for 4,588 yards and 45 touchdowns in his career, the last three years as the unquestioned No. 1 Pack back.
"That's where the term 'Nevada Back' comes from," Mastro said, recalling a Wolf Pack tradition that Ault coined a few decades ago. "It means one guy who you can rely on game after game."
It was Frank Hawkins who became Ault's first star running back and the standard by which all future Nevada Backs are judged. Hawkins, the Pack's starter from 1978-80, ran for a Pack-record 5,333 yards on 947 carries in his career.
Charvez Foger (4,484 yards on 866 carries) epitomized the tradition of the tough, reliable, dependable Nevada Back in the 1980s (1985-88) for Ault and Taua carried it into the new millennium.
Ault, though has gone through seasons with a timeshare situation at running back. Otto Kelly and Anthony Corley in 1982 and 1983 and Eric Jenkins and Johnny Gordon in 1984 were probably the most productive of the two-back back tandems in Ault's head coaching career.
"That might happen this year," Mastro said. "But that's not what Coach Ault wants."
Mike Ball, a junior in 2011 and Lampford Mark, who will be a senior, have the inside track to the top job.
"They've earned their shot to be the next one," Mastro said.
The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Ball, from Las Vegas' Desert Pines High School, has rushed for 479 yards and nine touchdowns on just 60 carries over the past two seasons. That comes out to an average of 8.0 yards per carry and one touchdown every 6.7 carries, meaning that if he wins the job and gets the customary 250 or so carries, he would gain 2,000 yards and score 37 touchdowns.
"It's Mike Ball's turn," Mastro said. "It's his turn to take the job."
Ball is the favorite to win the job right now because Mark is coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss the last three games in 2010. Mastro said Mark, who has rushed for 971 yards and six touchdowns over the past three season, will not participate in the Wolf Pack's spring workouts this year.
"He should be ready to go in the fall," Mastro said.
Both Ball and Mark have had their share of Nevada Back moments the past two (Ball) and three (Mark) years behind Taua. Ball rushed for 184 yards and five touchdowns against UNLV in 2009 and also had 101 yards this year against Idaho. Mark ran for 116 against Idaho this year and 114 against San Jose State in 2009.
But can they do it on a week-to-week, game-to-game basis? That's what the Pack coaching staff has to find out this spring and summer. And if they can't, well, the Pack will have other options.
The Wolf Pack signed two running backs (Kendall Brock of Clovis, Calif., and Anthony Knight of Massachusetts) to National Letters of Intent on Wednesday that could make the competition this spring and summer very interesting. A third running back recruit, Leondray Caldwell of Venice, Calif., will also be looked at as a wide receiver/ kick returner in 2011.
"The great thing about all those guys is that all of them are physically ready to contribute right away," Mastro said. "Sometimes you sign guys who you know are not physically ready to begin with, guys who need to get strong and bigger in the weight room. Not these guys. These guys are physically mature right now. They already can play."
Brock, Knight and Caldwell will be freshmen in 2011. Mastro said that two of them will likely be red-shirted in 2011 since the Pack also will have Ball, Mark, junior Nick Hale and sophomore Stefphon Jefferson on the roster.
"One of those guys (Likely Brock or Knight) will get a shot," said Mastro of the running back job. Caldwell, a speedy, talented 5-9, 196-pounder, could also serve as a kick returner (Ball's job the last two years).
Brock is a 5-9, 193-pound physical, fast back in the mold of Taua (5-10, 200). Knight is a bruising (6-1, 225), tough, strong back.
"Kendall Brock is as good as we can get," Ault said Wednesday. "He's a special player."
Knight seems to resemble a taller Courtney Randall, a 5-10, 215-pound senior in 2010 who rushed for 823 yards on 164 carries the past four years.
"We wanted a big back," said Ault of Knight. "He's going to be very interesting player for us in our offense."
All three freshman will not enroll at Nevada until the fall. The last freshman to serve as the Pack's No. 1 back was Matt Milton in 2002. Milton, who took over as the starter after Chance Kretschmer was injured in Week 2, gained 1,108 yards that season. Kretschmer led the nation with 1,732 yards and 15 touchdowns as a freshman in 2001.
Both Milton and Kretschmer, though, played for head coach Chris Tormey. The last freshman - the only freshman -- Ault has ever trusted as his No. 1 back was Foger in 1985 (1,241 yards, 14 touchdowns). Even Hawkins had to pay his freshman dues in 1977 behind Wayne Ferguson. Taua caddied for Luke Lippincott in 2007.
Mastro hinted that there will be plenty of work for the Pack backs in 2011 since quarterback Colin Kaepernick will no longer be around. Kaepernick, a senior in 2010, was the Pack's second leading ground gainer the last four years, keeping 591 of the rushing attempts for himself. The previous Pack quarterback in the pistol offense (Jeff Rowe) carried the ball just 306 times over four years (2003-06).
"You can't replace a Colin Kaepernick but you can try to replace the production," Mastro said. "You'll see more two-back sets in the spring from us. We did that with a lot of success last year so you'll see more of it."