Aug. 25, 2005
DENTON, Texas (AP) - Jamario Thomas arrived at North Texas last summer hoping to contribute on special teams and maybe get a few carries at running back, the kind of goals a freshman should have when he's backing up the reigning national leader in rushing and touchdowns.
Two games later, everything changed.
Patrick Cobbs' chance to defend his titles was slowed by a broken hand, then ruined by a knee injury. He spent the next week moping about having let the team down and thinking about whether to hurry back in six weeks, regardless of the risks.
Then Thomas removed his buddy's burden. Jumping from third to first on the depth chart, Thomas ran for 247 yards on the road against Colorado. Five more 200-yard games later, Thomas wound up keeping the national rushing title in Denton, breaking several of Cobbs' records and putting his name next to some of the best running backs in the NCAA record books.
Now Thomas is back for his sophomore year and Cobbs returns, too, thanks to a medical redshirt. That makes the 2005 North Texas Mean Green the first team to have the last two national rushing leaders in the same backfield since the NCAA began keeping the stat in 1970.
"It's a good problem to have," coach Darrell Dickey said, smiling. "I'd rather have two than none."
When UNT opens the season Sept. 3 at LSU, Thomas and Cobbs will share the workload each previously had to himself. That's not a problem either because the players are close friends, both convinced this will be the best thing for them and the team.
"All I want to do is win football games," Thomas said.
"Who else to share time with than 2004's nation-leading rusher?" added Cobbs.
Instead of routinely getting 30-plus carries a game, each can expect 15 to 20. Dickey is still figuring out how he'll mix it up. He's also planning to sometimes taunt defenses by putting them both in the backfield.
"Some games it may be the whole game, some games it may be 20 percent of the time," he said coyly.
Cobbs figures the tag-team approach will keep them so fresh that "after halftime, we'll feel like its the second quarter, the first quarter." They're also looking forward to burning some of that extra energy on special teams. Thomas wants to return kicks, like he did in high school, and Cobbs, a former safety, hopes to be back on the punt-block squad.
It almost seems too good to be true, two accomplished players at a high-profile position being so selfless. Well, it's no act.
The pair hit it off from the time Cobbs hosted Thomas on his recruiting visit. The dynamic of their relationship has remained the same: Cobbs looking after Thomas.
Whenever Thomas' number pops up on Cobbs' caller ID, he answers by asking, "What do you need?" They lived together this summer and are together so much that Thomas' girlfriend says Cobbs is her best friend.
Their bond was cemented early last season, after Cobbs' tough luck gave Thomas his big chance.
Cobbs was working through a broken right hand when he hurt his left knee in the second game. He was devastated thinking it'd be his fault if North Texas didn't win a fourth straight Sun Belt title.
Dickey thought Thomas was talented enough to take over. But he wondered how the kid would handle making his starting debut in Boulder, Colo., in front of nearly 50,000 fans. So he waited until a few hours before kickoff to tell him.
Thomas responded with a 57-yard touchdown on his first carry. He finished with the most yards against Colorado in 68 games - and, remember, most of those were against teams from the running back breeding ground known as the Big 12. He also came within two yards of matching the school's single-game record set a year before by Cobbs.
"That eased my mind big time knowing I didn't have to hurry up and get back," Cobbs said.
Cobbs was on the sideline for every game, congratulating, consoling and coaching Thomas. He could've tuned out Cobbs once he began toppling his mentor's milestones. Instead, he became more attentive, crediting the advice as one of the reasons for his success.
"He led the nation in rushing and touchdowns. Apparently, he knows what he's talking about," Thomas said.
Thomas tied an NCAA mark by reaching 1,000 yards in his first seven games - but it was really six considering he had two carries for minus-1 yard in the closing minutes of the opener, a 65-0 loss at Texas.
His five straight 200-yard games matched the record held by Barry Sanders and Marcus Allen. His six 200-yarders broke the freshman mark of four held by Herschel Walker and Ron Dayne.
His 1,801 yards set a school and conference record. At 180.1 yards per game, he was the nation's statistical leader, the third freshman to do it. Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson - who went to high school about an hour away from Thomas in East Texas - finished with 124 yards more than Thomas, but played three more games.
The year before, Cobbs had 1,680 yards for a nation-best average of 152.7 per game, and 19 touchdowns.
Unlike other great running back combinations, such as Army's Doc Blanchard (Mr. Inside) and Glenn Davis (Mr. Outside) or Southern Cal's current duo of speedster Reggie Bush and bruiser LenDale White, Cobb and Thomas are practically carbon copies.
Cobbs is 5-foot-9, 205 pounds; Thomas is 5-11, 210. Both are praised for their footwork, balance and vision. The differences: Thomas runs track and is faster; Cobbs, a high school powerlifting champion, is stronger.
North Texas has had a runner with at least 1,110 yards four straight seasons, helping the Mean Green win its last 25 straight Sun Belt games. League coaches picked UNT to win the conference title again and they voted Cobbs and Thomas the co-favorites for offensive player of the year.
Keep it up and North Texas could get dubbed "Tailback U." That would be fine by Dickey, a former college quarterback who learned the value of the running game from his dad, a longtime college coach.
In 1974, Jim Dickey Sr. was a defensive coach at North Carolina and Darrell was in high school. He saw the Tar Heels become the first team with two 1,000-yard rushers while going from four wins to seven.
In his own coaching career, Darrell Dickey's best teams have had productive runners - even at SMU, where as offensive coordinator he helped the Mustangs to their only winning season since the death penalty. That year, they had a running back among the nation's leaders after five games, then he got hurt and his replacement made all-conference.
So, are Cobbs and Thomas merely products of their system?
"We feel like we have a good system, but we don't think just anybody can come in here and do what these two guys have done," Dickey said. "This is happening because they're very, very talented and we have a system that allows them to achieve things.
"It's a great combination."