Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series previewing the 2019 Boise State football team by position. The previews will appear throughout August. Previously: Defensive line. Check out our position-by-position roster here.
It’s a streak that started somewhat by happenstance — when injuries and the emergence of Doug Martin transformed a committee approach to the running game for the Boise State football team into a focus on a workhorse.
It’ll probably end the same way — either by injury, or by a committee that develops in the absence of a star running back.
But will it end this year? Maybe not — even though the Broncos enter the season without an obvious heir to the string of 10 straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, a streak that is nearing the college football record.
Redshirt junior Robert Mahone, true sophomore Andrew Van Buren and true freshman George Holani are among the contenders competing during fall camp for one of the most important jobs on the team. Redshirt freshman Danny Smith, coming off injury, and true freshman Keegan Duncan are the other scholarship running backs.
“We’ve been better when we’ve had a couple of guys (getting the ball) and we’ve had one guy get into a groove,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “... I think we have a guy like that on our team. I just don’t know who it is yet. But you’ve got to want to do that.”
Mahone (5-foot-10, 218 pounds) showed flashes of playmaking ability the past two years as a backup to Alexander Mattison. Mahone has 243 rushing yards and 89 receiving yards in his career but also was suspended from last year’s bowl trip for academic reasons.
He has the most experience and adds an extra dimension with his pass-catching ability.
“He’s a guy that was very consistent throughout spring, showed a lot more bounce in his step,” running backs coach Lee Marks said.
Van Buren (6-0, 223) was second among the team’s running backs with 163 rushing yards last season.
“He’s a bruiser,” Marks said. “He likes being physical, wants to be physical.”
And Holani (5-11, 192) is an intriguing newcomer who earned a spot in veteran practices as camp opened with his work over the summer. He was ranked as high as the No. 17 running back recruit in the nation.
“For a young player, he has proved himself to at least come out here and practice with the first group,” Harsin said.
Harsin and Marks say the 1,000-yard streak isn’t something they stress, even with recruits. The goal, Marks said, is to produce 5 yards per carry from the running backs — how those carries are split is irrelevant.
The running backs, who weren’t made available for interviews, know what type of opportunity awaits the group’s leader, Marks said.
“This’ll probably be the most interesting fall camp I’ve had as far as just the level of energy coming out of that room,” the fifth-year coach said. “... These guys know, ‘I can be the guy.’ ”
How the streak was built
Boise State’s string of 10 straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher is tied for the third-longest in major college football history behind North Carolina (12, 1973-84) and Texas (11, 1995-2005). USC (1972-81) and Wisconsin (1993-2002 and 2005-14) also have hit 10 years.
Jeremy Avery (2009): Avery and D.J. Harper carved out roles in 2008 that led to senior Ian Johnson coming up short of a 1,000-yard season. Avery and Harper were set to split the load in 2009, but an injury to Harper altered that plan. Avery rushed for 1,151 yards (5.51 per carry) — including three straight 100-yard games in November — and Doug Martin returned from defense to add 765 yards.
Doug Martin (2010-11): It was supposed to be a Martin-Avery-Harper combo in 2010, but Harper got hurt again and Martin developed into one of the best running backs in the nation. He averaged 6.27 yards per carry to rush for 1,260 yards on just 201 attempts — the lightest workload during this streak.
Martin was treated more like a workhorse in 2011, when he rushed for 1,299 yards on 263 carries (4.94 per carry) despite missing nearly two full games. He returned from injury to rush for 543 yards in his final four games.
D.J. Harper (2012): Harper finally got his shot, rushing for 1,137 yards (4.99 per carry). He topped the 1,000-yard mark in the regular-season finale and gained at least 100 yards six times.
Jay Ajayi (2013-14): Ajayi showed potential as Harper’s backup in 2012 and became one of college football’s most productive players in 2013. He rushed for 1,425 yards (5.72 per carry), including 222 against Nevada. That was the Broncos’ final season under coach Chris Petersen.
Harsin arrived in 2014, and the workhorse running back became a staple. Ajayi finished that season with 347 carries for 1,823 yards (5.25 per carry) and 28 touchdowns — plus 50 catches for 535 yards and four touchdowns. His 2,358 yards from scrimmage (11th) and 32 TDs (tied for fourth) still rank among the best totals in college football history.
Ajayi rushed for 100 yards 10 times, including 200 yards twice, that season.
“He was the workhorse, there was no doubt about it,” Harsin said. “If anybody else got a carry, it was just because he wanted him to.”
Jeremy McNichols (2015-16): McNichols apprenticed under Ajayi as the “offensive weapon” in 2014, then took on his lead role for the next two years. McNichols rushed for 1,337 yards on 240 carries as a sophomore (5.57 per carry) with 51 catches for 460 yards. He scored 26 touchdowns.
He went to another level as a junior with 1,709 rushing yards on 314 carries (5.44 per carry) and 37 catches for 474 yards. He scored 27 more TDs. He had nine 100-yard games and was in position to challenge Ajayi’s rushing and yards from scrimmage totals but managed just 134 rushing yards over the final two games.
Alexander Mattison (2017-18): Mattison, like McNichols and Ajayi, rose from playmaking backup to two-year star. He shook off a slow start in 2017 (166 yards in the first four games) to rush for 1,086 yards on 212 carries (5.12 per carry).
It was a similar story in 2018, when Mattison only topped 100 yards once in the first seven games and looked like he might break the streak. But he gained at least 136 yards in five of the final six games (including 200 in each of his last two games). He finished with 1,415 yards on 302 carries (4.69 per carry).
“That’s an amazing honor to accomplish that and continue that streak,” Mattison said after he hit the 1,000-yard mark last year.