Much has been made of Boise State junior tailback Jay Ajayi’s heavy workload in the first two games this season — and for good reason.
Ajayi is on a historic pace, one that could spark the Broncos to that elusive, outright Mountain West title, increase his NFL Draft stock and put him in position to earn national honors.
But Ajayi also will be exposed to more hits — and that’s why many fans cringed when he was used for 10 fourth-quarter carries last week against Colorado State to close out a game in which the Broncos watched their 27-point lead dwindle to 13.
Coach Bryan Harsin left no doubt after the game that he intends to use Ajayi as much as possible (you can listen to Harsin, Sanford and Ajayi discuss the issue in the highlight video above).
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“We would be stupid not to put the work on him,” Harsin said. “ We can talk about it all we want. Next week, we’ll put it in Jay’s hands. The ball will be in his hands again. I don’t know — I think it’d be idiotic for us not to utilize Jay and to spread the ball around just because we say we need to.”
Ajayi leads the nation in combined rushing attempts and receptions (69) and yards from scrimmage (459). He set a school record with 280 yards from scrimmage against Colorado State to earn Mountain West Offensive and Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award National player of the week awards
At his current pace, Ajayi would become the third running back since 1956 to top 425 offensive touches in a season (see charts below). And he would finish with 2,983 yards from scrimmage — an unfathomable total that would break the FBS record set by Kevin Smith of UCF in 2007 (2,809 yards).
For context, the Boise State record for yards from scrimmage in a season is 1,893 yards by Brock Forsey in 2002. He got the ball 331 times.
Ajayi is on pace for 1,982 rushing yards. The school record is 1,713, set by Ian Johnson in 2006.
“When you have a great player, you give him the football,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. “I don’t think that’s a controversy. Jay was in a flow. We’re talking to him on the sidelines on the headsets — he sees the game really well. He wasn’t winded. He wasn’t beat up. (Sunday), it wasn’t even 12 hours afterward — he was fresh and ready to go. If he’s fresh and rolling, we’re going to play him. We only get 10 more games guaranteed. This isn’t the NFL season. We get 10 guaranteed games. Let’s get the most out of our guys for 10 more guaranteed games.”
Ajayi does not seem fazed by the work. He was limited to 82 carries in 2012 (he set a school record with 6.7 yards per carry) and was protected at times in 2014, when he finished with 249 carries (19.2 per game) and produced the fourth-most rushing yards in school history (1,425).
If he stays healthy, he likely will become the second Bronco with 240-plus carries in consecutive seasons. Forsey carried 246 times in 2001 and 295 times in 2002 on his way to a school-record 813 career carries.
“I’m getting a lot of opportunities to touch the ball, a lot of opportunities to make big plays for the team,” said Ajayi, a second-year starter. “It’s been really fun just seeing how my role has developed from last year to this year, seeing the different style that we’re doing.”
Harsin appreciates Ajayi’s consistency of effort and execution and the variety of ways he hurts defenses. He has emerged as a significant threat in the pass game and his vision allows him to make gains by running to spots that aren’t part of the play design.
“What’s he going to do?” Harsin said. “You can’t really tell.”
At the same time, Harsin cautioned that Ajayi must perform over a longer period to justify talk of what kind of season he could have.
“It’s only two games,” he said. “We’re two games into it and the bottom line is we’re 1-1. That’s the reality. I don’t think we have any room to sit there and pat ourselves on the back. We’ve got a long ways to go.”
Next up: Connecticut on Saturday in East Hartford, Conn. (10 a.m. MT, ABC). The Huskies allow 154.5 rushing yards per game.
"He's an excellent back,” UConn coach Bob Diaco said. “Hard to tackle, fast, aggressive. He's got moves, short-space quickness, he's got a nice spin. He uses his weapons. He's got a complete game, catches well. They check the ball down to him a bunch. He's a predominant, predominant performer and a very productive player in their offense. "
Here’s where Ajayi ranks in the FBS this season and where his current pace (based on 13 games; the Broncos could play 14) would put him historically, according to sports-reference.com:
Plays from scrimmage in 2014
1. Jay Ajayi (Boise State) 69
2. Leon Allen (W. Ky.) 64
3. Thomas Rawls (C. Mich.) 61
Yards from scrimmage in 2014
1. Jay Ajayi (Boise State) 459
2. D.J. Foster (Arizona St.) 443
3. Aaron Jones (UTEP) 398
Rush attempts in 2014
1. Thomas Rawls (C. Mich.) 56
2. Jay Ajayi (Boise State) 53
3. Leon Allen (W. Ky.) 52
Rushing yards in 2014
1. Aaron Jones (UTEP) 384
2. James Conner (Pitt) 366
3. D.J. Foster (Arizona St.) 363
4. Marlon Mack (USF) 348
5. Jacobi Owens (Air Force) 309
6. Jay Ajayi (Boise State) 305
Most plays from scrimmage in a season (since 1956)
1. Kevin Smith* 474 2007 Central Florida
2. Marcus Allen* 467 1981 Southern California
Ajayi’s pace: 448
3. Lorenzo White* 425 1985 Michigan State
4. Shawn Faulkner 423 1983 Western Michigan
5. Javon Ringer* 418 2008 Michigan State
6. Troy Davis 415 1996 Iowa State
7. Le'Veon Bell* 414 2012 Michigan State
Darnell Autry* 414 1995 Northwestern
9. Craig Heyward* 409 1987 Pittsburgh
O.J. Simpson* 409 1968 Southern California
* includes bowl stats, which were unofficial for many years
Most yards from scrimmage in a season (since 1956)
Ajayi’s pace: 2,983
1. Kevin Smith* 2809 2007 Central Florida
2. Barry Sanders 2734 1988 Oklahoma State
3. Marcus Allen* 2683 1981 Southern California
4. Larry Johnson* 2436 2002 Penn State
5. Matt Forte 2409 2007 Tulane
6. Ricky Williams 2386 1998 Texas
7. Rashaan Salaam 2349 1994 Colorado
8. Eddie George* 2344 1995 Ohio State
9. Darren Sproles* 2273 2003 Kansas State
10. Mike Rozier 2254 1983 Nebraska
* includes bowl stats, which were unofficial for many years
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