By the final game of the 2003 season, the Howard University football team's backfield was so depleted that the Bison were down to their last running back against Delaware State. When Howard opens the 2004 season against Alabama State in the Detroit Football Classic on Sept. 4, the Bison figure to have tailbacks stacked like cordwood on the sideline.

Four running backs who missed all or most of last season because of injury or suspension return to the team this season, along with sophomore Antoine Rutherford, who last season ran for 1,050 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games. The Bison also add freshman Terry Perry, perhaps the fastest player that has signed with Howard in Coach Ray Petty's three seasons at the school.

"We've got six running backs we can give the ball to," Petty said. "I'd rather have that problem than not having enough of them."

Petty faced that dilemma last season, starting in May when starting tailback Jay Colbert dislocated his left wrist in an automobile accident. In 2002, Colbert became the first Howard player in 15 years to run for 1,000 yards or more. With Colbert sidelined for all of 2003, Keon Coleman and Jamar Smith shared carries in the opener against Texas Southern. Coleman ran for 157 yards and one touchdown in the Bison's 27-20 loss, and then started the following week against Hampton.

In the second quarter of that game, Coleman broke his left leg and Smith sprained his left ankle. The Bison had to turn to Rutherford, who transferred to Howard after one season at Virginia Tech. Rutherford, from Hollywood, Fla., ran for 206 yards and one touchdown in a 48-3 win over Savannah State, and then gained 230 yards and scored five touchdowns in a 42-28 win over Norfolk State.

Now that Colbert, Coleman and Smith are healthy, and Daine Williams has returned after serving a season-long suspension in 2003, Rutherford isn't sure how the playing time will be divided.

"We're going to continue to compete and whoever comes out No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4, that's how we'll start the season," Rutherford said. "No one here is selfish. However it turns out, that's how it's going to be."

The Bison plan to line up three running backs in the backfield, and the backs will be used as slot receivers as well. The team lost its top five receivers from last season, so there aren't a lot of experienced players on the perimeter.

"I think our coaches do a good job of evaluating talent, and they'll put us in other positions to get us on the field," Smith said. "It's all about being versatile. We're all versatile backs and can catch the ball and do a lot of different things."

Jay Colbert, seated, and from left, Jamar Smith, Antoine Rutherford and Keon Coleman all return to the Bison backfield this season.