When Laurence Maroney came to Minneapolis for his recruiting visit, as the University of Minnesota tried to lure him from his home in St. Louis, he was well aware of the other running back in the room. Marion Barber III had the pedigree -- the son of a former NFL and all-Big Ten back -- and the accomplishments, having run for more than 700 yards as a freshman.
There was no reason for Barber to believe he would be, some day, sharing his job. Maroney hadn't yet arrived on campus, hadn't yet shown that he, too, could reel off a hundred yards a night. Yet the sense of an in-house rivalry was already there.
"We really didn't say nothing to each other," Maroney said this week. "To be honest, we really didn't like each other."
Saturday night, when Penn State comes to Minneapolis to face the 18th-ranked Golden Gophers, Maroney and Barber will provide perhaps the nation's best example of how two players with one goal can perform a single job.
"I'm his backup," Maroney said, "and he's my backup."
Share the ball, share the love. It's happening at Minnesota, at Auburn, at Southern California, from coast to coast, on teams both bad and good. Of the 25 teams ranked in the Associated Press poll this week, 12 are splitting the job of primary running back, four are splitting time at quarterback, and two -- Louisiana State and Tennessee -- are splitting both. And that doesn't begin to address the other places it's happening.
"It's not a case where you're trying to pacify people," said South Carolina Coach Lou Holtz, who has started playing two quarterbacks himself. "You're trying to win."
The job sharing programs are happening for a variety of reasons. Some, such as Minnesota, have two studs -- Maroney and Barber are the Big Ten's top two rushers. Others, such as LSU -- where senior Marcus Randall and redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell are trading off at quarterback -- would love one to distinguish himself, and it hasn't happened. And still others are doing it out of philosophy, such as at Georgia, where the Bulldogs are simultaneously promoting senior quarterback David Greene for the Heisman Trophy while trying to get supremely talented junior D.J. Shockley into the lineup.
"You want your second team to play," Georgia Coach Mark Richt said. "It's good for morale, and it's good for a situation if you have an injury to your starter. I mean, my gosh, if you never give your second-teamers a chance to play, and your number one guy gets hurt, then what you probably have is a guy who's a little bit bummed out because he hasn't gotten to play, and a guy who's probably not ready to play."
Indeed, coaches nationwide say it has become nearly essential to play backups, regardless of position, to develop depth. Injuries are too common in football to be able rely on a single player week after week.
Players, though, rarely want to hear that. Most react as Barber did when Maroney was being recruited: Here's someone trying to take my job. And when coaches go into living rooms on recruiting trips, they hear the questions about the players already on the roster, those who would, ostensibly, be ahead of them in line.
"Kids are able to get on the Internet and find out everything now," Maryland recruiting coordinator James Franklin said. "Before, they had to go by what the coaches were telling them. Now, they actually are worrying and thinking about a lot more things than maybe they need to be. Other programs will use that stuff and 'negative recruit' against you. They'll say, 'Look at their roster. Look at who's at your position.' All those factors come up."
Therefore, it can be dicey. The Greene-Shockley situation perhaps best illustrates this dynamic. In 2000, Georgia won a hotly contested recruiting battle for Shockley -- who SuperPrep magazine rated the top quarterback in the country -- despite the fact that Greene was already on campus. Shockley redshirted in 2001 while Greene played as a redshirt freshman. The following fall, while Greene continued to improve, the coaches worked to get Shockley playing time as well.
Occasionally, there were cries from fans to make Shockley the starter. It never happened. On Saturday against LSU, Greene will make his 43rd straight start. Shockley thought seriously about transferring before his sophomore season, but Richt talked him into staying. The two continue to share the job, but Shockley's playing time has diminished each season, which makes for quite a topic of conversation in Athens, Ga.
"With a quarterback, it's just a little bit more difficult because everybody wants to make a big stink about it," Richt said. "Did he get in? Didn't he get in? Well, everybody notices that. . . . You just got to be a little more mindful of the psychology of that position."
Richt is both mindful of and realistic about that psychology. He commended the way Shockley has handled the situation -- "He's done a good job not trying to make a mess of everything" -- but thinks the media's constant questioning over the past three years has worn on him. Greene has thrown 82 passes this season, Shockley nine.
"It's tough on him," Richt said. "I mean, when his name gets called to speak to the media, it's like, 'How do you feel about it? How do you feel about it?' . . . Nobody likes not playing a lot. [They ask] 'Don't you wish you played more?' 'Well, yeah, I wish I played more,' is what he's thinking."
The coach on the opposite sideline this week in Athens wishes he had such a problem, an overabundance of experience and talent. LSU's Nick Saban began the season playing both Randall and Russell with the hope one would jump up and, as Saban said, "take the bull by the horns, and we would go in that direction. I'm not sure that's happened yet."
Randall, who served as the backup to Matt Mauck during LSU's national championship campaign last year, has thrown fewer passes for fewer yards than Russell in each of the Tigers' four games thus far. Yet Russell, Saban says, still mixes in too much of his youth with his talent. So when the Tigers face the Bulldogs in a game they likely need to win to keep alive SEC title hopes, both quarterbacks will play.
"It's delicate to try to balance, to be fair," Saban said, "and develop the kind of things that you need to develop in your offense."
Figuring who to choose can be as trying on the coaches as it is on the players. North Carolina State sputtered offensively behind junior quarterback Jay Davis two weeks ago against Ohio State. So entering last Saturday's game at Virginia Tech, the Wolfpack coaching staff decided to insert freshman Marcus Stone on the third series of the game. The two shared duty for the remainder of the first half, and then Stone -- despite the fact he connected on only 2 of 7 passes -- played all but one series after the break. The result was a 17-16 victory, but no real sense of how a rotation works.
"Pretty much, I was just waiting after I came off for a series," said Stone, who scored the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard run. "I'd either hear the coaches say I was going in, or Jay was going in. We didn't really have much conversation about it."
Immediately after the game, N.C. State Coach Chuck Amato said: "I'm not going to let emotion carry us into a decision. We're going to go back and analyze what they both did."
Which, apparently, led to no concrete conclusion, because this week against Wake Forest, N.C. State will start Davis, and Stone will come in on the third series, and the coaches will decide what to do from there. But maybe Wolfpack fans need not shudder about the uncertainty. Maybe it's just the norm.
"I think it's a healthy situation," Davis said.
Tennessee, which hosts Auburn in a matchup of unbeatens, believes its situation is healthy as well. The Volunteers have two freshmen -- Erik Ainge and Brent Schaeffer -- sharing the quarterback duties. In recent weeks, Ainge has been more consistent, particularly when he led the Vols from behind in a dramatic 30-28 victory over Florida. But Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer said he will continue to use Schaeffer -- or at least threaten to use him -- because he's a better runner. The opposing defense, then, must prepare for two styles.
"The dynamics of these two together give us something that can give defenses problems," Fulmer said, "if not during the game, then during preparation. . . . It's hard for a defensive team to make those transitions."
Coaches and players agree that the transition at running back is a bit easier, because the position is less taxing mentally but can be more demanding physically than quarterback. Top-ranked USC is among the nation's most dangerous teams in part because it uses two tailbacks, sophomores LenDale White and Reggie Bush. Either can carry the ball at any point, either can break a long run, either can take the heat off quarterback Matt Leinart. And their rushing numbers are nearly identical.
There are examples throughout the top 25. Miami does it with Tyler Moss and Frank Gore, Florida State with Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker, Auburn with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.
No one, however, does it as dominantly as Maroney and Barber. Long ago, they put their tensions aside, and started, as Maroney said, "click-clacking." Through four games, all victories, they have combined for 1,040 yards on 158 carries, good for 10 touchdowns. Maroney is ranked 10th in the nation in rushing, Barber 11th. It works, Maroney said, because they both believe there are enough handoffs to go around.
"It really would take two guys who get along to make it work," Maroney said. "If two people didn't like each other, then someone might be going to [other] players, or to coaches, and complaining, like, 'I want the ball more.'
"We don't do that. Me and him, we're best friends."