PITTSBURG — The increase in popularity of the passing game has changed the way football is played in recent years, but the Pittsburg State running backs like to mix in a little old school with the modern formations.

Although the running backs are taking fewer handoffs, they are involved in more ways than ever before and open up the passing game by being dynamic playmakers when the ball is in their hands.

“We’re more versatile in our offense and we spread the field more, but we still think that we have to be able to run the ball and run it when we want to,” PSU running backs coach John Pierce said. “That’s just our mentality. If things aren’t going well, there are times where we have to get back to the run and settle down. We think of ourselves as a physical football team and not just one that throws the ball. If you’re able to run the ball effectively, it opens up the play-action passing game and it does tremendous things for the offense. It really opens up what you’re trying to do.”

Versatility is key for the running backs in the PSU offense, as they need to be ready for anything on any given play.

“In our offense, being versatile is a huge deal,” Pierce said. “They have to be able to do a lot. We can’t have somebody who is good at running the ball, but not be able to protect on a passing play. If he can’t block, it’s going to be hard for him to get out there. They have to be multi-talented and know what they’re doing. It’s a tough and physical job that we’re asking them to do, but they have a great attitude and they work really hard at it. That’s why they’re really good and I think that speaks to their character.”

There’s a lot going on each play, but the main priority of the running back is being able to hang on to the football.

“Holding on to the ball is a big deal,” Pierce said. “Part of our daily fundamental work is talking about and working on ball security, but we always talk about it in a positive manner. We want to emphasise the positive aspect so they don’t think about it in games and just focus on using proper technique.”

After a disappointing season in 2016, the Gorillas were determined to get better during the offseason and came into fall camp with a new mindset.

“We had a really good offseason,” Pierce said. “They got in the weight room and went to work. Everything just went really well and we had a good vibe in spring ball. The older guys were in charge and they kept everybody involved.”

Because the Gorillas stayed diligent, they came into fall camp more refined and were able to get more things accomplished instead of taking the time to get back into shape.

“The preseason practices are just about getting fundamentally sound, going through the plays and understanding our offense,” PSU running back Michael Rose said. “We want to make sure every rep is a good one and make sure everything is perfect. We want to understand the playbook and know how defenses will set up to stop it so we can counter it. Just trying to make sure everything is perfect is the main goal right now.”

Rose is the lone senior running back in the group of seven this season, but nothing is guaranteed in the position battle.

“We’ve got a great bunch and everybody is competing,” Pierce said. “It’s a very competitive position on the field and our older guys have an advantage. Michael has the most experience, Keynan Scheurich and Kiah Kintchen have both played and we have three great young guys in Tucker Horak, Tyler Adkins and D’Vontae Brown. All of those guys are all competing for playing time and it’s just a matter of making sure everybody has it down and are ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

Rose was the go-to back last year, tallying 600 yards on on 112 carries and found the endzone seven times, but is looking for more in his senior season.

“It’s difficult to run the ball in the MIAA,” Rose said. “Defenses have gotten a lot better since my freshman year. Some teams in the conference weren’t very good, but they have changed a lot. There’s a lot of big and fast guys, but we have a good offensive line to help us get through the holes.”

While Rose is expected to get the bulk of the carries this year, the talented underclassmen could see some playing time as well.

“They all have a great work ethic,” Pierce said. “All of the guys I’m coaching are very coachable, are all team oriented and very competitive. They want to do it right and they’re all competing for playing time, but they’re all helping each other. They’re all talented with intangible skills that you can’t coach, which makes it a lot of fun.”

Regardless of who is carrying the football, the running backs will rely heavily on the work of the offensive line to create holes.

“What the running backs bring to the table will help us be successful, but that’s only part of it,” Pierce said. “We’re fortunate to have a really good offensive line and coach Wells does a great job with those guys. If we’re having success as running backs, it’s because the men upfront are doing a great job. You can’t have success at the running back position if you don’t have men upfront doing a great job. They’re the unsung heroes and our guys know that if they do well and run the ball for a big gain it’s because those guys really did a great job.”

The coaching staff will also be hard at work off the field tinkering with the playbook to keep things fresh.

“Our offense over the course of the year and will evolve,” Pierce said. “We’ll add things and emphasis more things as the season goes on because if you’re doing the same things all the time, teams are going to start figuring that out. You have to be diverse in your thinking. You can do the same things, but you have to do it in different ways. If you’re always running the same plays out of the same formations, people are going to figure that out really quick, so you have to be versatile and flexible. It’s darn tough week in and week out.”

A lot goes into getting each win, but the running backs have to focus on doing their job in order for the team to succeed.

“For the team to be successful, the running backs have to block well,” Rose said. “We’re third-down pass blockers and we have to make sure the quarterback stays up. If we can block, I think we’ll be good. That’s a huge part of football, so if you can block and tackle, you’re going to win games.”

— Jordan Buckamneer is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at jbuckamneer@morningsun.net and follow him on Twitter @jbuckamneer.