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Colts training camp preview: Running backs

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 16: Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts rushes against Andre Hal #29 of the Houston Texans in the second quarter at NRG Stadium on October 16, 2016 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offseason of major change ramps up July 29 when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.

Over the next several days, we’ll take a positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?

Today: Running backs.

  • Starter: Frank Gore.
  • Backup: Robert Turbin.
  • Others: Josh Ferguson, Marlon Mack, Dalton Crossan, Troymaine Pope.

How much longer?:

At this stage of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, Gore is taking the appropriate approach, the only approach.

“I take it one year at a time,’’ he said.

So, we’re at year 13, and the end lurks. Gore has defied Father Time, but he’s 34 and very few players at his position remain effective at such an advanced age. Also, he’s in the final year of the free-agent contract he signed during the 2015 offseason.

Last season, Gore became the first Colt to rush for 1,000 yards since Joe Addai in 2007 and the first in the NFL to reach that level at age 33 since John Riggins in 1984. If he cracks 1,000 for the 10th time in his career this season, he’ll join Riggins and John Henry Johnson as the only players in league history to do so after his 34th birthday.

“As long as I’m healthy and my guys up front get me the opportunities, I’m going to be successful,’’ Gore said.

The Colts will remain a pass-heavy team as long as Andrew Luck is employed, but they must provide him with a more reliable ground game. Gore’s individual achievements aside, the team ranked 23rd in yards per game (101.8) and 22nd in yards per attempt (4.0).

That’s not good enough. And it’s worth noting Gore’s two worst seasons in per-carry average are his two in Indy: 3.9 last season, 3.7 in 2015.

Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski remains squarely in Gore’s corner, but there figures to be more of a backs-by-committee approach this season.

“You can go a lot of different directions in that you can feature more things or different things with different people,’’ he said. “Some of that will be personnel-driven.’’

As much as Chudzinski will attempt to maximize his options, Gore should remain the featured back. He lacks the big-play burst from his younger days, but generally squeezes every yard out of every carry. And there’s no minimizing Gore’s availability factor. He’s started 92 consecutive games, the league’s longest active streak among running backs.

Another Gore-related tidbit that’s secondary in the overall scheme of things but paramount to his legacy: he needs 620 yards to move past LaDainian Tomlinson into the No. 5 spot in the NFL’s career rushing chart and 1,037 to leapfrog Curtis Martin at the No. 4 slot. Gore enters the season at No. 8 with 13,065 yards.

Backup plan:

Gore has hardly been overworked since joining the Colts as an unrestricted free agent in 2015. He’s averaged 16.3 attempts per game, which mirrors his 10-year workload with the San Francisco 49ers (16.5).

He might encounter a slight reduction this season, which probably would be a reflection of where he’s at on his career arc and his possible supporting cast. Turbin is coming off a stellar 2016 and impressive offseason. Mack, a fourth-round draft pick out of South Florida, brings breakaway speed. Ferguson, an undrafted free agent signee in 2016, seems to be emerging in year 2.

Turbin was one of the league’s premier short-yardage and goal-line options last season. He was 5-for-5 on third-and-1 rushing attempts and his 8 touchdowns tied Gore for the team lead despite a significantly lighter workload. Gore handled 301 “touches’’ while Turbin had 73.

Turbin would embrace a more prominent role in the offense.

“Some people see me as a third-down (player), short-yardage, goal-line, whatever,’’ he said. “I see myself as a player that can do all things. When those opportunities come, just play and take advantage of those opportunities, period.’’

Without prompting, Chudzinski insisted Turbin “had a hell of a spring . . . much better this spring than he was this time of year a year ago.’’

Mack, meanwhile, could complement Gore and Turbin as a situational back with big-play pop. He set South Florida career records with 3,609 rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns. Mack produced 15 touchdowns as a senior, and six were 43 yards or longer. He averaged 6.2 yards on his 586 career carries.

Worth noting:

Since the arrival of Luck in 2012, the Colts have failed to provide him with a consistent ground game. Over the past five seasons they rank near the middle of the pack in rushing attempts per game (25.9, 19th overall) but are 24th in yards per game (101.2) and 28th in yards per attempt (3.91). Last season, they had only four rushes gain at least 20 yards, which was tied for the fewest in the league. Buffalo led the league wit 27. Oh, and Luck provided three of the four.