The five college freshmen stalking Ian Johnson this fall won't be autograph hounds.
They'll be his backups.
The Broncos plan to use at least four and possibly five freshmen in the backfield to complement Johnson — the junior Heisman Trophy candidate who led the nation in scoring last year.
Three of those freshmen joined the team last fall and are getting a fast-paced education in the Boise State offense this spring. Johnson, who was battered throughout last season, is coaching rather than playing this spring to save his body for the season.
"He's a big role model for me," said Jeremy Avery, one of three freshman tailbacks on the roster. "He pulls me aside, critiques me. He's a big help."
Redshirt freshmen Avery, Jarvis Hodge and Stew Tracy will provide depth at tailback this fall. Recruits Doug Martin of California and D.J. Harper of Texas, who arrive in August, could figure into the rotation, too. Matt Kaiserman of Skyview High is expected to grayshirt.
Sophomore Andy Silsby and senior Michael Lose will contribute as fullbacks, particularly as pass protectors. Senior tailback Jon Helmandollar, who sat out his sophomore season, still has not regained his freshman form.
The running backs mustreplace the 2006 production and pass protection of Brett Denton (424 total yards, four TDs) and Brad Lau (64 yards, one TD). They also must shoulder some of the load taken on last year by Vinny Perretta, who will line up in the backfield at times this year but is expected to start at wide receiver.
Perretta rushed for 316 yards and three touchdowns last year.
All told, Denton, Lau and Perretta produced 804 yards and eight touchdowns out of the backfield last year.
Through six spring practices, the freshmen running backs have shown flashes of capability along with the expected knack for play-busting mistakes.
"We're going to have to live with some mistakes — that's part of the deal," running backs coach Jeff Choate said. "Things happen a lot faster here than they do on film. These guys spent their first semester in college reading a card and doing what the card says (on the scout team), and now you've got all these moving parts and that can be a bit of a challenge.
"All of these guys have some very good instincts."
Avery, Hodge and Tracy have loaded up on practice repetitions this spring because of the Broncos' low numbers. They have practiced with as few as two healthy tailbacks.
"First-team ‘O,' that's a big transition so far for me," Avery said."You've got to make a big adjustment to the offense and know what you've got to do. The mental part is very difficult because you've got to know exactly where you have to be at the right time."
Avery has shown tremendous promise. He draws easy comparisons to former Bronco leading rusher Lee Marks.
Avery, like Marks, is undersized at 5-foot-9, 161 pounds. Strength coach Tim Socha nicknamed the team's lightest player "Peanut."
And, like Marks, Avery is deceptively strong.
"He looks small," Hodge said, "but he's probably the strongest one (of the freshmen)."
Avery also is one of the team's fastest players, darting through small holes and bursting upfield.
Avery was a summer addition to the 2006 recruiting class out of Bellflower, Calif., after he improved his SAT score at the last minute.
"He's gifted with tremendous change of direction and some natural pure speed," Choate said. "That combination can make him a dynamic player. We've got to get him honed in on some of the details, and that's what this spring is for."
Tracy (5-9, 177), a former receiver who walked on out of Bishop Kelly High, impressed coaches last fall with his playmaking ability in the day-after-game scrimmages for redshirts.
He likely will take some of the plays that Perretta ran last year. Many of those were designed to get Perretta the ball on the perimeter.
Hodge (5-9, 193) puts some bulk in the backfield. He's more of a power runner whom Choate hopes to develop into a reliable pass blocker.
Hodge was named team MVP as a high school senior in Phoenix and at his Pennsylvania prep school in 2005.
"We've just got to accept our roles," Hodge said of the freshmen. "We know Ian's going to be the starter. We just have to make the most of every opportunity we get."
If they don't, they might lose time to Martin and Harper. Choate expects to play one of the two true freshmen this season.
Martin rushed for 1,234 yards and 14 touchdowns for Saint Mary's High in Stockton, Calif. Harper rushed for 1,570 yards and 21 touchdowns at Cypress (Texas) High.
Both earned team MVP honors.
"What we ask them to do may be watered down," Choate said, "but I do think they have the talent, if we keep things simple, to come in and be productive."