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After two years splitting carries, Kevin Parks ready to carry Virginia's running game

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Gifted as they appear to be, neither of Virginia's quarterbacks has started a college game. Moreover, both redshirted last season and are adjusting to a new offensive coordinator.

Translation: If ever a team could use a workhorse, productive running back, it's the Cavaliers.

So what about it, Kevin Parks?

Despite splitting carries as a freshman and sophomore, you've gained more yards in your first two Virginia seasons than Thomas Jones, Tiki Barber or Terry Kirby, the school's leading career rushers. You ran for a North Carolina-record 10,895 yards in high school and toted the ball 41 times in a playoff game as a sophomore.

So what about it, young man? Lack of prototype size notwithstanding, can you shoulder the offense and ease the burdens on quarterbacks David Watford and Greyson Lambert?

“I can,” Parks said resolutely at the Cavaliers' preseason media function Friday. “I can do it.”

If Virginia is to avoid a fifth losing season in six years, Parks had best be right.

Perry Jones, his primary backfield partner the last two seasons, graduated. Clifton Richardson, the team's designated power back, transferred to Liberty; junior Khalek Shepherd has 24 career carries, and Kye Morgan is a redshirt freshman.

No, I'm not ignoring incoming freshman Taquan Mizzell from Virginia Beach's Bayside High, the program's first five-star recruit since Eugene Monroe in 2005. But with an iffy offensive line, the tailbacks will need to understand and execute pass-protection schemes early and often, quite the challenge for a rookie.

Parks raves about his fellow tailbacks — “I think this kid's going to be great,” he said of Mizzell. Yet with 1,443 career yards on 312 carries — that's a commendable 4.6 average — and 14 rushing touchdowns, Parks needs to be the ace, particularly as Virginia navigates a September schedule that includes Brigham Young, Oregon and a road test at ACC newcomer Pittsburgh.

“I've got to be the lead guy this year,” Parks said. “I've got to show the way and pave the way, and I believe I'll get it done. … I feel like I can do it all. …

“When you write down about Kevin Parks: He's the total package at running back. Catch out of the backfield, blocking, run between the tackles, run outside.”

Parks spoke matter-of-factly rather than boastfully. He also conceded that during last season's 4-8 decline, sub-par performances by the line and backs forced offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to abandon the run at times.

Lazor left during the offseason for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, and his replacement, Steve Fairchild, arrived from the NFL's San Diego Chargers. Like Lazor, Fairchild preaches a run-first approach.

“Running the football, it's a physical attitude as much as anything,” Fairchild said, “and it's not just up front. It's with backs finishing, the way they go accelerating into contact, and receivers blocking and so forth. … We've got to be a physical run team. It rears its head in every game. There's some point where you have to make a yard or you have to bang out a first down.”

The Cavaliers averaged an unacceptable 3.7 yards per carry last year — Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina averaged 5.1 or more — and Parks recalls all too well a defining sequence against UNC in the season's penultimate game.

Trailing 20-13 late in the third quarter, Virginia marched to a second-and-goal at the 3. Jones gained a yard; so did Parks.

Fourth-and-goal from the 1. The home crowd pleaded for Coach Mike London to go, and he obliged.

The Tar Heels stuffed Parks for a 2-yard loss, scored 17 unanswered points in the final quarter and won 37-13.

“We gotta have those,” Parks said. “Maybe me scoring … we may win that game and change things around.”

At 5-foot-8, Parks is not a classic tailback. Nor does he have sprinter's speed. But he's a chiseled 205 pounds and blessed with quality instincts.

“In my mind, he can carry the football as many times as they hand it to him,” said tight end Jake McGee, Parks' close friend. “If it's 40 times, I think he can do it. … In his mind, he can't be stopped. … I like where he's coming from.”

Through two seasons at Virginia, Barber had 632 yards, Jones 897 and Kirby 1,331. Among the trio, only Kirby's 5.8 per-carry average as a freshman and sophomore was better than Parks'.

But each of those three rushed for more than 2,000 yards during his final two seasons. Indeed, as a junior and senior, Jones ran for a combined 3,101 yards and 29 touchdowns, a Cavaliers-record 1,798 in his final season, to shatter Barber's career mark — 3,998 to 3,389.

Parks isn't likely, and doesn't need, to approach Jones' numbers. Why, in an orange-and-blue world, Mizzell is so good, at least by 2014, that Parks doesn't log 25-to-30 carries per game.

But Watford hasn't played since his true freshman season of 2011, when he threw 74 passes as a reserve, and Lambert is a redshirt freshman. Regardless of personnel, nothing would hasten their development and effectiveness more than a ground attack defenses must honor.

“(If) my team needs a win, I need to be in the game to do it,” Parks said. “If it takes 30 carries, 40 carries, give me the ball. If I have to block 20 times a game, I'm going to do it. …

“There may be times I have to carry the team on my back, so I'm in the weight room doing extra lifts, extra runs, knowing I may have to carry the ball 30 times a game. Now it's my time to live up to (expectations). … Virginia can run the football.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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