Editor’s note: This is the second in a series previewing the Boise State football team by position. For more on the running backs, visit IdahoStatesman.com/BroncoBeat . Coming Sunday: Defensive backs.
Jeremy McNichols was “The Weapon” last year as a true freshman.
He likely will be simply “The Tailback” in 2015.
McNichols slipped into the every-down tailback role Friday night at Albertsons Stadium during the Broncos’ open fall scrimmage — and it was a good fit.
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Coaches expect to use the first few games to determine the exact tailback rotation but they have made it clear since December that they believe in McNichols. Coach Bryan Harsin called him “the future of our backfield” before the Fiesta Bowl.
“I thought J-Mac had a really good run, a couple of really hard downhill runs,” offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said after the scrimmage. “That was a positive. He caught the ball well out of the backfield, didn’t have any protection busts that I saw.”
McNichols finished with six carries for 22 yards and a team-high five catches for 24 yards. He played nine games last year in a wide receiver/tailback hybrid role but packed on 10 pounds in the offseason to prepare for the job he came to Boise State to pursue.
Originally committed to Utah as a wide receiver, he chose Boise State in part because the Broncos saw him as a tailback.
“I wanted to play running back,” McNichols said. “They get the ball the most.”
The Broncos certainly showed that last year.
Jay Ajayi, now a member of the Miami Dolphins, touched the ball 397 times, gained 2,358 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.
Coaches say they won’t necessarily follow the same model this year. But they also haven’t ruled it out.
“I don’t know if we’ll know that till the third or fourth game,” Harsin said. “We’ve got to allow these guys to go out there and have a chance to be the guy and get their reps and establish themselves instead of saying we don’t have Jay, we have to have three guys and they all have to be specialized.”
McNichols gained 314 yards on 32 touches last season — a small sample size but enough to earn the benefit of the doubt going into this season.
His greatest competition might come from senior transfer Kelsey Young, who was Stanford’s backup last year and has accomplished more in games than any of the Broncos’ other tailbacks.
Young didn’t have a carry in the scrimmage because of an injury. He did return kicks.
His experience has shown up in practice, coaches say.
“He’s new to us, but he’s played football and he’s played at a high level, played in a system that runs the football, and he understands that,” Harsin said.
Two longtime backups also are in the mix. Junior Devan Demas, the team’s fastest player, improved during fall camp. He needs to solidify his play in the pass game and avoid the fumbles that hindered him in the Spring Game. Senior Jack Fields, who hasn’t been productive as a runner in his career, is a physical player who performs well on special teams and delivered a key block in place of Ajayi in the Fiesta Bowl.
“We have guys that I think can do a lot of different things,” Harsin said, “and to me it goes back to what we want to run and how we want to run it and who fits that bill.”
McNichols (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) might be the most multi-dimensional. He boasts big-play speed, unusual receiving ability and a reshaped physique that should allow him to handle the physically demanding parts of the job.
“I feel stronger and more physical,” he said.
He also is smarter, having learned from his crash course as a true freshman and used his downtime in the spring (hernia surgery) to study.
Last year, McNichols said, the game “was moving so fast for me — it was like a million miles an hour.”
“But it’s starting to slow down now,” he said. “... The competition is open. It’s there for anybody to take. I’m going to go to practice every day and work toward it to be the guy.”