The Boise State football team’s tailback situation likely will be more a series of auditions than a rotation Friday night against Washington.
Coaches have said three players will contribute: sophomore Jeremy McNichols, the starter; senior Kelsey Young, the Stanford transfer; and junior Devan Demas, the team’s fastest player. But they won’t be shuttling in and out of the game except for plays that require specific personnel.
“If we stick a guy in there, we plan on him staying in there for a while,” running backs coach Lee Marks said. “... It’s interesting to see who takes advantage of their opportunity when they get in there, who’s hot. Part of being hot is doing everything you’re supposed to do and playing without the football — blocking, chipping, running the right route and lining up correctly.”
Jay Ajayi did all of that last year and rarely left the field because of his consistency and determination. He finished with 397 touches, 2,358 yards from scrimmage and 32 TDs on his way to the NFL.
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The three guys who hope to replace him don’t have 397 touches in their careers combined — not even close.
“It’d be nice to know you have one guy that can stay in there for the whole game,” Marks said, “but I definitely anticipate there to be a little more of a rotation this year for sure.”
McNichols gets the first crack. He impressed coaches last fall as a true freshman with his outstanding production in a limited, hybrid role designed to capitalize on his mixture of tailback and wide receiver skills. He averaged 9.4 yards per carry and 10.3 yards per reception on a total of 32 touches. McNichols added 10 pounds in the offseason. At 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, he is the Broncos’ best combination of speed, power and versatility.
“He’s very good with the ball in his hands,” Marks said. “He can just do a little bit of everything, which makes us very versatile. ... But at the same time, he’s very good at running old-school power and being a downhill runner, too. That’s going to be a little bit different for defenses to plan for.”
Young (5-10, 198), who played receiver and tailback at Stanford, also brings versatility to the position.
“Kelsey is a very wide-based runner,” Marks said. “He likes to be very physical when he runs the ball and likes to be very downhill.”
Demas (5-8, 175) has improved his skills in the pass game to increase his chances of playing regularly. He averaged 6.9 yards a carry last year and 6.0 yards in 2013.
“Devan’s very fast,” Marks said. “He can run. He’s also very slippery — a lot more slippery than people give him credit for. He can find those little cracks and be able to get through them.”
Marks says he’s “extremely, extremely” confident that this trio of tailbacks can maintain the tradition of potent Boise State rushing attacks (they weren’t available for interviews).
The tailbacks’ mentality, Marks said; “Make sure people remember us.”
“There’s no doubt in my group,” he said. “We need to do a very good job of helping lead this team and be the legs of this team.”
None had a story quite like senior cornerback Donte Deayon, who made his debut on the opening kickoff of the San Diego State game in 2012.
“It was exciting,” he said, “but then I remember that first play I was on kickoff and they actually returned it for a touchdown. I kind of felt like, ‘Dang, I just started my first game and they scored a touchdown on me.’ ”
Among the Broncos expected to make their major college debuts: wide receivers Austin Cottrell and A.J. Richardson (possibly Akilian Butler, too), defensive tackle Tutulupeatau Mataele, defensive end Jabril Frazier, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, safety Kam Miles and cornerbacks Raymond Ford and Tyler Horton.
Oddly, those guys cover every class: true freshman (Horton and Butler), redshirt freshman (Frazier, Richardson, Vander Esch), sophomore (Cottrell, Miles), junior (Ford) and senior (Mataele).
The rookies must prepare meticulously for their roles and forget about the 36,000-plus people in the stands, veteran players say.
All will handle the moment in their own way.
“I don’t know what you can tell them,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said. “Just go play. (Frazier) is already worried about it. Just don’t worry about it. You’re good enough to play or I wouldn’t put you out there.”
Season openers can be difficult even for longtime starters to handle, at least in the first few plays.
At kickoff, senior safety Darian Thompson said, eight months of anticipation erupts.
“All the excitement has just been building up, building up, building up,” he said, “and when the whistle blows you just try to let it all out. But you’ve got to take a couple deep breaths so it doesn’t all come out at one time. That would be a bit much.”
Coach Bryan Harsin hopes his players take a moment to absorb their surroundings. Friday’s game could set a new stadium attendance record and likely will be the most-attended home game this season.
“Moments prior to the game, you’ve got to take it in,” Harsin said. “It’s not something you go out to do but it just happens. For the players, too, that’s part of the experience.”
Much has changed and two years have passed but the Broncos haven’t forgotten their 38-6 loss in the 2013 season opener at Washington — the program’s worst loss since the notorious Georgia game in 2005.
“Still have a bad taste in our mouth from that game,” junior defensive end Sam McCaskill said. “That still is sitting with us.”
BRINGING THE HEAT
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates has left no doubt since he became the defensive backs coach in 2006: If you want to play safety at Boise State, you must play with physicality.
In Thompson, sophomore Dylan Sumner-Gardner and junior Chanceller James, Yates has developed a set of starting safeties who should fit that mold.
“One thing about playing defensive back here is you have to be physical,” Thompson said. “No matter how smart you are, how athletic you are, you have to be physical. Being able to beat the opponent physically and also mentally. That’s one thing about our group — we may not do every single thing right, but we will be physical. That’s one thing (Yates) loves.”
Yates isn’t willing to give the group his stamp of approval yet.
“We’ll find out on Friday how they play,” Yates said. “They’re doing a good job. They work well together.”
DEEP ON THE D-LINE
Boise State goes into the opener with a three-deep defensive line — a full 12 players ready to contribute if needed.
“There’s obviously a drop-off, but there’s 12 guys we can get some reps out of,” Caldwell said. “How good the quality will be, we’ll see on Friday night.”
The Broncos listed three guys at each line position on the depth chart: senior Tyler Horn, McCaskill and senior Rondell McNair at end; seniors Armand Nance, Justin Taimatuia and Robert Ash at nose tackle; Mataele, senior Antoine Turner and junior Elliot Hoyte at tackle; and juniors Kamalei Correa and Gabe Perez and Frazier at stud end.
All but Mataele and Frazier have spent time in the Broncos’ rotation in the past.
How many of the 12 get on the field will depend on the flow of the game, Caldwell said.
“I tell them every day you’ve got to prepare like you’re going to play,” he said. “If you don’t play, that’s just part of it. But if you’re called on, you’ve got to be ready to go.”
Chadd Cripe is in his 14th season covering Boise State football for the Idaho Statesman. He also votes in The Associated Press Top 25. He can be reached at email@example.com.