Broncos showing more depth at running back

ccripe@idahostatesman.comApril 4, 2014 

Senior running back Derrick Thomas is looking to bounce back from a rough junior year, which included two suspensions.

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

The Boise State football team's running game was a one-man show in 2013 — a departure for a program that had relied on deep, talented backfields for years.

Going into the second scrimmage of spring ball on Saturday, tailback depth appears to have returned.

Senior Derrick Thomas, who endured a rocky transition from junior college, and junior Jack Fields, a wildly productive high school player who has struggled to deliver at the college level, have seized the second chance to make a first impression granted by the new coaching staff.

"I have an opportunity to compete once again and kind of have a second start, which you normally don't have," Fields said. "… I know my time will come. I'm a hard worker. I just stay humble. I just keep on working. And I know it will come, because I'm taking the steps necessary."

Thomas, who was supposed to infuse some experience and leadership into a young backfield last year, was suspended for the first and last games for violations of team rules. He didn't have a carry in the first four or last three games, finishing eighth on the team in rushing.

He said his woes were in part "self-inflicted" and he was eager for a fresh start.

"That's exactly what I look at every day as — a fresh start to showcase my talent," Thomas said. "… I was (frustrated), but that was last year. I'm trying to lose memory of that. It was pretty hard, but it's the past, so I just leave it in the past."

The Broncos return All-Mountain West tailback Jay Ajayi, who rushed for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.

They lost No. 2 tailback Aaron Baltazar, who contributed 234 yards as a true freshman before tearing an anterior cruciate ligament and leaving the program.

That leaves Fields (139 yards, 3.0 yards per carry), sophomore Devan Demas (125, 6.0), sophomore Charles Bertoli (115, 6.4) and Thomas (95, 3.0) to compete for the backup and specialty carries.

In each of coach Bryan Harsin's last four years as the Broncos' offensive coordinator (2007-10), at least three Broncos tailbacks rushed for 250 yards - so there are quality reps in play even if Ajayi stays healthy all year.

"I like the running back group a lot," offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. "I think people are going to be surprised at how deep it is. Those guys are getting a chance to play and for us to see they have different skill sets. I think it's going to be a strength of our offensive group."

The progress made by that group will be tested in the final two scrimmages of spring ball, because those are rare practices that include full tackling.

In the first scrimmage two weeks ago, Fields caught Harsin's attention.

"I thought he stood out in that first scrimmage," Harsin said. "I thought he ran hard. He knew where to go with the ball."

Thomas was named the offensive player of the day for back-to-back practices during the first week of spring ball.

"His whole approach has been good," Harsin said. "What he's done in the film room, what he's done in the weight room, in the classroom, just everything. As a senior, things start to click."

Thomas has spoken often to former Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Both came from Butler Community College in Kansas and ran into disciplinary issues.

Lawrence also became one of the most productive defensive players in Boise State history and could go in the top half of the NFL Draft next month.

"He told me just work, just work every day — whatever you want, just work and you'll get it," Thomas said. "… I feel like I can be a playmaker and that's what I'm looking forward to."

Still, the line forms behind Ajayi.

The 6-foot, 216-pound junior should thrive in an offense built around a power running game.

"That guy is so patient," Sanford said. "I just love his patience as a runner. He gets behind his pads and rolls."

Fields, who rushed for 2,478 yards as a high school senior in El Paso, Texas, has tried to learn from Ajayi's example.

"He's a hard worker," Fields said. "The thing a lot of people need to know about why he's successful is he stays in the film room. He's a student of the game, and I respect that. That's the thing I know I needed to work on, staying in the film room and making sure I understand all parts of the offense."

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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