Spring football provides a chance to try some new things, expand veterans’ knowledge of the game and spreads out practices to let those new concepts settle in players’ minds.
With an experienced group, but one that needs its second unit behind workhorse Jeremy McNichols to make a leap, the Boise State running backs are taking advantage of the potentials of spring.
“We’ve been really kind of focusing on learning the game of football — that’s been our huge emphasis from Day 1. We’re going to strip everything down,” running backs coach Lee Marks said. “... Not just what they have to do, but what everyone’s doing.”
Beyond finding the hole, catching the ball out of the backfield or simply avoiding fumbles, the nuances of playing running back are where the Broncos will thrive. Marks noted examples like knowing how a safety moves, spotting if he’s blitzing, or knowing the pass routes to provide optimal protection.
“It’s a lot for them to think about,” Marks said.
But the practice every other day schedule of spring, along with a week-long break next week, those things don’t need to be compressed into a few days like in a game week.
That more cerebral approach to the game has quickly become appealing to McNichols, who looks to build off his 26 total touchdowns and 1,797 yards from scrimmage as a sophomore last fall.
“Just in the film room, I want to be a smarter player,” McNichols said of his top goal for improvement. “Just know pre-snap where the defenders are going to be and where they’re going to end up.”
Last season, McNichols took some nasty hits, one leading to a concussion that forced him to miss Boise State’s 52-26 loss at Utah State on Oct. 16. He since has changed helmets and said Tuesday he hopes the push to have a better grasp of the game will enable him to avoid some of those situations.
“Being smarter taking on those hits,” McNichols said when asked how to reduce his risk. “I’m a physical runner, so sometimes it happens. I’ve just got to be smarter. It’s just being a smarter football player, knowing where those guys are going to be and how they’re going to tackle.”
Behind McNichols, the Broncos are seeking reliable options, as Marks said particularly at running back, “every football team definitely needs a No. 2, and a No. 3.”
Senior Devan Demas ran for 171 yards last season, but fumble issues caused him to fall out of favor, and he didn’t have a carry the last six games, while sophomore Cory Young didn’t have one the final seven games. Junior Ryan Wolpin, a walk-on, ran for 98 yards the final three games. A pair of highly-touted freshmen, Alexander Mattison and Robert Mahone, join this summer.
Marks said some in his group have been “deer in the headlights a little bit” this spring, but after Tuesday’s first practice in pads, he hopes some of the new things start to click.
“The hardest part of college is adjusting to how fast the game is, how much stronger everybody is,” Marks said. “Now, my guys have been in the program for a few years now, so they really have no more excuses.”
McNichols has confidence in the candidates to be the No. 2 back, saying “whoever comes in will get the job done.” He won’t necessarily cede more of his work, either, that he’s willing to handle another season like his 240 carries and 51 receptions in addition to some work at kick returner.
“It’s really no numbers, it’s how the game is going to flow,” McNichols said.