On July 31, the day before fall camp began, running backs coach Lee Marks said senior Ryan Wolpin would start out as the recipient of most first-team carries.
Wolpin had a strong spring as sophomore Alexander Mattison was severely limited following shoulder surgery. Mattison has been the presumed heir to Jeremy McNichols’ starting job after flashing tons of potential as a true freshman.
But on Thursday, Marks said the 5-foot-8, 195-pound Wolpin still is getting a lot of time with the No. 1 offense.
“There’s not really one guy who is the clear-cut favorite,” Marks said. “If you really had to say a guy who has been the most consistent, it definitely would be Ryan Wolpin.
“He’s not giving it up right now.”
Wolpin has “always been that trustworthy guy,” as offensive coordinator Zak Hill said, adding that he “kind of outworks guys at times.” He had 13 carries last season for 39 yards but is pound-for-pound one of the strongest players on the team.
Complicating the competition a bit is not just Wolpin’s solid play, but that Mattison has not practiced the last week. Coach Bryan Harsin said he hopes to get the 5-11, 214-pounder back soon. It is not believed to be for academic or disciplinary reasons. Mattison had 67 carries for 328 yards and four touchdowns last season.
“Alex, we’re expecting big things from him,” Hill said. “He’s got to be that workhorse. He’s got to keep earning it. He’s still young, he still needs to prove himself. We’re not going into the season saying he’s got to be the guy. We have a very good crew of running backs. We can distribute the ball.”
Also in that crew is redshirt freshman Robert Mahone, who Marks said “has taken a leap” in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield. Harsin said “Mahone’s really stepped up” following Friday’s scrimmage.
True freshman Drake Beasley remains a potential candidate for early playing time after some strong showings in the team’s scrimmages and Mattison on the shelf temporarily. He did not play last season as a high school senior after transferring schools but had offers from UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado and Pittsburgh before that.
“I think he has the best vision in the group,” Marks said. “He’s really, really hungry, and you can tell he runs with that passion.”
Marks said he could have a “1-2-3-4 punch” with the quartet that he said won’t shake out until next month, when he expects to find a set No. 1, but Wolpin and Mattison clearly have a leg up.
“Nothing changes. My attitude is always work as hard as I can every day,” Wolpin said. “... It means a lot to me, makes me feel like my hard work is definitely paying off. I know a lot of people are counting on the running back room, and I want to step up for the team.”
Plenty of components of McNichols’ game need to be replaced. Wolpin said the group has all worked hard on catching passes, as Mattison’s five receptions last season are the unit’s only ones. Marks said he hopes to find a back who can carry it 200-plus times, pointing to Mattison as more than capable because of his size.
Between Wolpin and Mattison, their longest rush last season was 19 yards. McNichols had 15 runs longer than that. Marks said Mattison has “good speed,” but they are working closely with him to get faster to break off those long runs.
“Now, I’m in a position where there’s going to be a lot more pressure on me ... I have to be the legs of the offense,” Mattison said in July, adding, “I know I have something to prove.”
Boise State has a history of finding a way to get production from its backs after great ones depart. Hill said “every year when you lose those guys, there are guys that step up.”
For eight straight seasons, the Broncos have had a 1,000-yard back, a stretch that can only be matched by one other school (Auburn). Now, they hope whoever it is can step into a much larger role from a relatively inexperienced group.
“I’m excited about this group,” Marks said. “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time as a coach.”
Projected depth chart
22 Alexander Mattison, 5-11, 214, So.: Showed a massive amount of potential last year, has the look of a possible workhorse back
21 Ryan Wolpin, 5-8, 195, Sr.: One of the team’s hardest workers, saw limited action in 2016 but was impressive in 2015 bowl
34 Robert Mahone, 5-10, 211, RFr.: Had 9.4 yards per carry as HS senior, has seen plenty of work in spring and fall to improve
29 Drake Beasley, 5-11, 178, Fr.: May prove to be quite the steal for Boise State, has already shown a lot of vision and elusiveness