There is a comfort in having a workhorse running back, one who can run over or around a defender, catch the ball with ease and get the ball 30 times in a game.
Boise State has that luxury in junior Jeremy McNichols.
“You can line that cat up anywhere on the field, he’ll make a play,” senior running back Devan Demas said. “... He just keeps going and going. When you think he’s not going to go, he goes. There’s no stop with that kid.”
But when that workhorse needs a breather, or worse, when he misses a game, it’s the true test of the unit.
Last season, McNichols only missed one game, the Oct. 16 loss at Utah State. The Broncos ran for 34 yards on 30 attempts. The Broncos graduated No. 2 rusher Kelsey Young (511 yards, eight TDs), and there’s a daily battle to take over that job.
Demas has been the leading candidate, but he’s pushed by junior Ryan Wolpin, true freshman Alexander Mattison, sophomore Cory Young and true freshman Robert Mahone.
“I don’t want to lose a step when any of those guys go in there,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “We don’t want to have to change how we run the football. If it’s McNichols, we’re a downhill team. If it’s Devan Demas, we’re a downhill team. ... We’ve got different backs, but we don’t have a different mentality.”
On 75 career carries, Demas has averaged 6.3 yard per attempt. Wolpin ran for 87 yards in the Poinsettia Bowl, and Young has shown flashes in past scrimmages. Demas and Young did not have a carry in the last six games of 2015, however. Harsin said Mattison and Mahone both have the talent to play right away, but he would prefer to redshirt one. Mattison has seen some work with the No. 2 offense, Harsin said.
“You can’t slip up one day. ... Everyone has to be on their ‘A’ game,” Demas said.
Even if no back has cemented the backup job, there’s confidence in the experience and the depth of options.
“We’ll be happy with whoever we have in there, we’ll be confident in what they bring,” running backs coach Lee Marks said. “We have guys who have been here a couple years, and you’d expect them to be able to step in and contribute.”
Make no mistake, however, it will be the McNichols show week in and week out, as long as he’s healthy. Last season, he ran for 1,337 yards and added 460 yards receiving, finishing second in the nation with 26 total touchdowns. He said he is more than capable of topping the 296 total touches he had last season (240 rushes, 51 receptions, five kickoff returns).
McNichols missed the Utah State loss (concussion) but said he adjusted his running style afterward. His top five rushing performances came in the next six games.
“There are certain ways I can position my body to take hits, instead of the head, to the shoulders, to my legs, go down if I have to,” he said.
This season, McNichols has focused himself on fully understanding the nuances of his position, be it pass blocking or even being a decoy, as he said, to help draw safeties’ attention so receivers can be free on deep routes. His freshman season, he worked as a receiver/running back, having his own specialized playbook. His sophomore season was the first of his football life as a full-time, starting running back.
“I felt my progression when we got to conference last year, seemed like I got my confidence,” McNichols said. “The first couple games, I was still trying to feel myself out with the running back position.”
Be it trying to follow McNichols’ lead as an every-down back, or the veterans trying to stave off the hotshot youngsters’ attempts to break into the rotation, it’s a group the Broncos hope have an extra edge.
“They definitely have a bit of a fire, and I like seeing that,” Marks said.
COMING SUNDAY: Tight ends
RB depth chart (projected)
- Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 212, Jr.: One of nation’s best all-around backs in first season as a starter last year
- Devan Demas, 5-8, 174, RSr.: Has shown big-play potential in mop-up duty, wants to be more complete
- Ryan Wolpin, 5-8, 189, RJr.: Solid special teamer had great showing in Poinsettia Bowl
- Alexander Mattison, 5-11, 206, Fr.: Ran for 4,074 yards in final two high school seasons
- Cory Young, 5-10, 195, RSo.: Had 90 yards in first six games, no carries in final seven
- Robert Mahone, 5-10, 209, Fr.: Big, strong back who could redshirt with so many options in backfield.