SPARTANBURG, S.C. – John Settle recognizes he's been the envy of running backs coaches everywhere.
From 2006-10, Settles oversaw the running back position at the University of Wisconsin, where a potent rushing attack is a permanent expectation. In his final season in Madison, he coached three backs – John Clay, James White and Montee Ball – who all nearly eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark (Ball was just four yards short).
Now in his second season as running backs coach with the Carolina Panthers, Settle has another opportunity to groom a three-headed rushing monster.
The franchise's top two all-time rushers – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart – got a new running mate in the offseason when the Panthers signed unrestricted free-agent Mike Tolbert – who's compiled 19 rushing touchdowns over the last two years.
"DeAngelo is our home run hitter," head coach Ron Rivera said. "You look at what Jonathan does for us, he's our inside power guy that rumbles for 25 or 30 yards. And then you look at what you've got with Tolbert, and he and Jonathan have some very similar traits.
"The nice thing is when you watch that group of guys, they are all diverse and they are all going to bring something different to the table."
There's a lot of options for the Carolina coaching staff. And Settle doesn't consider the depth he's enjoyed over the years a luxury. He feels it's a necessity.
"You understand that you can never have enough," Settle said. "This is a long, grueling season. So for (general manager) Marty Hurney and the front office to have three guys here -- that speaks volumes to what we're trying to do."
A WELCOMED ADDITION
Williams' and Stewart's established presence in Carolina didn't faze Tolbert. He wanted to be Panther and was willing to do what it took to make that happen.
"We talked to him during an interview process before we signed him," Settle said. "And he was all in, with whatever we asked."
The Panthers are asking a lot.
Tolbert is being used as a fullback, running back and tight end, doing everything from blocking to short-yardage carries to screen passes out of the backfield.
"It's fun to know that they trust me, being the new guy here," Tolbert said. "They have done some things for me that I like – which is everything really."
"One of the things I pride myself on is my versatility," he added.
Tolbert also prides himself on being a leader in the locker room and building relationships with his teammates.
He wondered about Williams and Stewart. How would they react to his arrival?
At first, Tolbert admits he wasn't quite sure.
"I was a little hesitant because I didn't know how I would be received in the running back room," Tolbert said. "They welcomed me with open arms. Both of them gave me a phone call the day I signed here. They wished me the best of luck and said they were ready to go."
Williams and Stewart embraced the addition, understanding the value Tolbert can provide with his diverse skill set and ability to play multiple positions. They were excited and willing to make room.
"He gives us a versatile fullback that could play some tight end and looking at his play and his attitude, his personality can fit in our room," Williams said. "It was easy to accept him."
The 5-9, 243-pound Tolbert is just as capable making holes as he is running through them.
He'll often serve as a lead blocker in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's scheme, paving the way at times for Williams and Stewart.
"Seeing that wide body of his, he's already got a lower center of gravity but he's got the size to plug holes, and that's what we've been wanting," Stewart said. "I think the defense is definitely over there cringing a little bit."
Some running backs would cringe at the thought of splitting carries with two other established backs.
But it's not an issue in Carolina.
"It's easy," Williams said. "You approach it as a team game. Since I've been here I've been sharing carries."
That's always been Tolbert's approach.
"I'm not a selfish person. The ball is going to go where it needs to go," Tolbert said. "I'm not the type of person to say, 'Give me the ball, give me the ball.'"
Rivera appreciates that mindset and believes it maximizes his running back talent.
"Our guys realize what we do and the way we do it is good for them. And if it's good for them, it's good for the team," Rivera said. "If our guys are getting anywhere between 8-10-12 touches, and they're effective touches, then that's great and it doesn't wear them."
Williams, Stewart and Tolbert plan on combining to make defenses worse for the wear this season. They plan to dominate on the ground.
"We tell each other all the time," Tolbert said, "we're going to have the best running game in the league this year."
Expectations are of the highest order for the Panthers backfield, and according to Settle, that's right where they should be.
"I wouldn't expect anything less for them."