BLOOMINGTON, Ind. —Marcus Thigpen has the breakaway speed Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner craves, and Demetrius McCray offers the elusiveness a college running back needs to stay healthy.
After assessing the duo for the past month in practice, Hoeppner has finally made a decision: He'll play both in Saturday's season-opener against Western Michigan.
"It's a product of the quality of them," Hoeppner said Tuesday. "We're not going to rely on just one and they know that."
If Hoeppner wanted a primary runner, he certainly didn't lend it any credence.
Rather, the Hoosiers coach plans on using four backs this weekend — Thigpen, McCray, Bryan Payton and Josiah Sears.
The running back competition was the most-watched duel of spring practice, but when it didn't produce a clear-cut winner, the battle was rekindled in August. Again, neither pulled away in the competition, which now continues.
At stake is the chance to replace Chris Taylor, last year's starter who has graduated, and Yamar Washington — Indiana's second-leading rusher in 2005.
Together, Taylor and Washington accounted for nearly 82 percent of the Hoosiers' yards rushing and more than half of their rushing scores. The top returning runner is quarterback Blake Powers, who had 121 yards in 11 games.
Hoeppner wants to improve Indiana's ground game after averaging 3.4 yards per carry in 2005, but neither Thigpen nor McCray has yet run away with the job.
Last season, Thigpen was the Hoosiers' second-leading receiver with 32 receptions for 432 yards and two TDs.
But with Hoeppner looking for Indiana's speed and an abundance of talent returning at receiver — most notably James Hardy, Jahkeen Gilmore, James Bailey, Brandon Walker-Roby and Lance Bennett — the Hoosiers tried to find a way to get Thigpen more involved and moved him to his more natural spot.
"I think Thigpen is the fastest man in Bloomington," Hoeppner said.
The transition wasn't been as smooth initially as Thigpen hoped.
"Learning the offensive line and the protection was the biggest challenge," Thigpen said. "In the spring it was tough because it was way different. But I think I've learned what it takes, so that's not really a problem anymore."
McCray's education required more study.
Hoeppner redshirted the 5-foot-11, 189-pound freshman last season, giving McCray a chance to spend the entire year figuring out what it would take to excel at the college level — on the field and off of it.
By the spring, he was in contention for the starting job.
"We bring various things," McCray said. "Once Marcus breaks out, I don't think there's anyone that can catch him. I'm a little more elusive."
Both have bigger goals.
While Thigpen and McCray would rather prove themselves worthy of being the Hoosiers' workhorse, rather than splitting carries, they both seem content with their role.
"I don't know what back wouldn't want the ball. I want the ball every play," McCray said. "But you've got to fit into the offense and take advantage of every opportunity you get."
Hoeppner's not certain how long he will go with the committee backfield.
"The challenge all summer was 'who wants to be a champion?' Obviously everyone wants to be a champion, so the question became 'who wants to do the things you have to do to become a champion?"' Hoeppner said. "The reason we're playing four is that we don't have five."