CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—In a sport where coaches are always searching for bigger, stronger, faster players, undersized runners are thriving in the Atlantic Coast Conference with their big-play potential this season.
Running backs like North Carolina's Giovani Bernard, Clemson's Andre Ellington, Virginia's Perry Jones and Kevin Parks, and Maryland's Davin Meggett all rank among the league's top rushers while standing 5 feet, 10 inches or shorter. They're versatile enough to line up in the backfield, split out wide or catch the ball in open space to create mismatches against slower defenders.
With their compact frames, they can hide behind offensive linemen until reappearing suddenly through an open lane or run low enough to maintain balance while bouncing off a hit.
"It's definitely an advantage," said Bernard, the first UNC player to run for 1,000 yards in 14 years. "Each size has its own advantage. I just use that as mine."
A year ago, running backs like Georgia Tech's Anthony Allen (239 pounds), Miami's Damien Berry (217), Virginia's Keith Payne (255), Virginia Tech's Darren Evans (223) and Clemson's Jamie Harper (230) all ranked among the league's top 10 rushers. Four of those runners stood at least 6 feet tall and the average weight of the top-10 running backs was 216 pounds.
This season, only one of the nine running backs listed among the league's top rushers stands at 6 feet while the average weight of those backs is 198. The biggest guy in that group is Miami's Lamar Miller, a 5-11, 212-pound sophomore who is second with 110.8 yards rushing per game.
Virginia Tech's David Wilson leads the league in rushing with 136 yards per game at 5-10 and 201 pounds. Bernard is third in the ACC with 101 yards and is listed at 5-10 and 205 pounds, though he says he's really closer to 5-8 1/2.
Then comes Ellington (5-10, 190), Jones (5-8, 185) and Meggett -- a 5-9, 215-pound back described by Terps quarterback C.J. Brown as "a bowling ball back there."
Outside the league leaders, Florida State's Devonta Freeman (5-8, 200) and Wake Forest's Brandon Pendergrass (5-9, 200) each lead their teams in rushing yardage.
While coaches would love to have a big power back with breakaway speed, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he's focused on taking advantage of every available weapon.
"I just want the best player," Swinney said. "I want someone who when we hand it to him, he stretches the field, breaks tackles, catches the ball. They come in all shapes and sizes. ... I think you have to have a combination, guys that bring different flavors -- like Baskin-Robbins."
North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers was the Tar Heels' defensive coordinator while his team faced all five of the top-rushing bigger backs in 2010. He said the versatility of the smaller backs have made them more valuable in pass-friendly schemes.
"That's became a big factor in college athletics: how many ways you can get explosive plays," Withers said. "You're starting to see a little bit more of the smaller receivers in the slots now because they're able to get the ball and run after the catch. It's the same thing with the running backs, (finding) a guy that can miss a tackler in space and go not only 10, but go 20 or 30 (yards)."
They've all done that. Bernard has two touchdowns of at least 55 yards. Ellington has three touchdown runs of at least 35 yards, including a 74-yarder. Jones has a 47-yard rushing touchdown and a 78-yard receiving score. Three of Parks' touchdowns have been at least 19 yards, while Meggett has a 20-yard TD run.
To listen to Parks, it's about more than just speed.
"I think we get lost," Parks said. Defenders "look in the backfield and they see us, and then they don't and then they see us again. It's kind of like a little hide-and-seek game sometimes to them."
They also have to be tough enough to hold up against defenders eager for the chance to flatten a smaller guy with a jarring hit.
Last year, Swinney relied on Harper's physical running to complement Ellington's shiftier style. With Harper in the NFL and several similar-sized backs on the depth chart behind him, Ellington -- nicknamed "Lil' Bit" -- has seen his carries increase from about 13 per game last year to 19 this year.
He missed most of the final five games of last year with a foot injury, and missed one game with an ankle injury this season. Even when healthy, he knows he must stay fresh enough to show the same burst that helped him run for 212 yards against Maryland on Oct. 15.
"Those bigger backs, they can take the pounding throughout the game," Ellington said. "It's rare that a smaller guy like myself can take the pounding for every game."
Regardless, Bernard said he has always chosen to look at his smaller frame as an advantage. He can even chuckle about opposing defenders who trash talk during games about his size.
"For me, being a small back, I love being in the open space," Bernard said. "I love the freedom of going 1-on-1 against a guy."
AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Va., David Ginsburg in College Park, Md., Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, S.C., and Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.