Through the spring, I’ll preview each position on the Boise State football team.
INJURIES, FUMBLES, DEPARTURES LEAVE A QUESTION MARK OVER TAILBACK SPOT
The Boise State football team’s Spring Game on Saturday did little to clear up the future of the tailback position.
Sophomore Jeremy McNichols, the front-runner, didn’t play because of hernia surgery. He was healthy enough to participate in some drills late in spring ball but he has little experience as a running back. He received 17 carries as a true freshman while spending some of his time at wide receiver.
Senior Jack Fields, the most experienced and best blocker, didn’t play because of a strained back sustained in the weight room. He was a renowned recruit who played as a true freshman but he hasn’t been productive in limited opportunities during his career.
Junior Devan Demas, the most explosive, lost two fumbles deep in opponent territory in the scrimmage. He gained 19 yards on seven carries while playing against the second-team defense.
And sophomore walk-on Ryan Wolpin, the darkhorse in the competition, struggled to 13 yards on 10 touches. However, he did pick up a first down on fourth-and-1 in a brief appearance with the first team.
The lone bright spot was redshirt freshman Cory Young, who showed toughness and burst while rushing for 68 yards on 11 carries. He added 16 yards on four catches. His 17-yard touchdown run was one of the most impressive plays of the night and he had a nifty, 25-yard run, too.
With last year’s nearly every-play back Jay Ajayi headed to the NFL, expected contributor Charles Bertoli off to fly airplanes and February signee Raymond Sheard lost to legal trouble, the Broncos will enter fall camp without a clear-cut star and with shaky depth at a position they need to rely on as they break in a new quarterback. The offensive line returns intact, making tailback even more important.
“That position is a little bit thin right now,” offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said. “... Cory really did have a good day and we were proud of him for that. He’s going to be a good player.”
Said coach Bryan Harsin: “I thought today was one of his better performances. Cory is a guy that runs extremely hard. ... If we’ll do a good job in front of him of keeping guys covered up, he’ll bounce off his teammates until he finds a crease. He did that tonight. He broke a couple tackles. He’s got speed.”
First-year running backs coach Lee Marks, a former Boise State tailback who worked on the strength and conditioning staff last year, says he’s comfortable with the roster he’ll take into fall camp. It’s possible the Broncos will add a late running back recruit, too.
None of the current tailbacks has rushed for 200 yards in a college season.
“We’re just kind of taking it day by day and seeing how this all plays out,” Marks said. “Right now, I’m excited about the group of guys I have. If you told me day one we’re rolling out with this group of guys, I’m good with that.”
Harsin doesn’t expect a one-man show like the Broncos had last year with Ajayi. A two- or three-man rotation has been the norm at Boise State.
“Jay, that was probably new for all of us,” Harsin said. “We haven’t had a guy who was such a workhorse. ... You hope you have a group of guys that you can really utilize their talents and that gives us variety. At the same time, you have to have someone when it’s crunch time to go to. Over the years, we’ve always had a Doug (Martin) or an Ian (Johnson) to give the ball to in crunch time. ... We won’t know until we get into fall camp and really start to put a lot of game plan plays in and see the variety of how we’re going to use the backs.”
PERSONNEL AT A GLANCE
21 Jack Fields, 5-9, 201, Sr.
26 Devan Demas, 5-8, 179, R-Jr.
37 Ryan Wolpin, 5-8, 191, R-So.
13 Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 198, So.
10 Cory Young, 5-10, 194, R-Fr.
34 Jaxon Pryor, 5-9, 212, R-Fr.
Returning starters (0 of 1): None.
Key losses: Ajayi devoured playing time like no Bronco tailback in recent years in 2014. He accounted for 347 of the team’s 409 tailback carries. He rushed for 1,823 yards and 28 touchdowns while adding 50 catches for 535 yards and four more TDs. The Broncos also have lost Bertoli, a good special-teamer who would have been part of the tailback rotation, and Sheard, who was expected to compete for playing time as a true freshman.
Key returners: Fields has 100 career carries, more than twice as many as any other tailback on the team. But he has rushed for 305 yards, an anemic 3.05-yard average. Demas is the opposite – he only has 46 carries, but he’s rushed for 298 yards and three touchdowns (6.5-yard average). But both of them slipped behind McNichols last season. The true freshman became The Weapon – a tailback/receiver hybrid – and finished with 32 touches for 314 yards and two touchdowns (9.8 yards per touch).
Other players to watch: Young was somewhat the forgotten man in this race because he redshirted last year while McNichols played. But McNichols fit a need with his ability to play wide receiver. Young showed in the Spring Game that he brings an explosive running style to the backfield and he capitalized on his opportunities with McNichols out. Wolpin also is interesting. He transferred from Northern Colorado and redshirted last year. He was the standout tailback at Santa Margarita High in Southern California as a senior in 2012 (1,368 rushing yards). McNichols transferred to Santa Margarita and replaced him in 2013 (798 rushing yards). Here is our profile of McNichols from December.
Projected starters: TB McNichols
Out for spring: McNichols (limited)
Incoming signees: None.
– Marks on the spring: “Just the open competition has been really beneficial in our room. It’s kind of nice because those guys approach every single practice like they can be the guy, which is fun to watch.”
– Marks on the group: “Right now we have a lot of similar guys. Jack’s probably the one obviously who is a little more of a pounder.”
– Marks said McNichols, Demas and Young can line up as wide receivers in certain situations.
– Perhaps the best play of Fields’ career was a blitz pickup on Chaz Anderson’s 57-yard touchdown catch in the Fiesta Bowl. Fields entered when Ajayi was shaken up. “He had a couple big blocks for us,” Marks said. “That kind of helped him with his confidence, coming in this spring. Jack’s done a phenomenal job. I’m proud of him. He’s taken on his role as a senior.”
– Marks on Young: “He’s done a great job really grasping the offense. And he hasn’t had a whole lot of missed assignments. I can probably count on one hand the number of times he’s messed up as far as a busted play.”
– Marks on coaching on the field this year (he played for the Broncos from 2001 to 2005): “It’s been fun. This is a dream job. Obviously getting an opportunity at my age to do this right now here, I wake up every day and I have to pinch myself just because this is really cool. We have a really good group of guys in that room and they’ve been accepting.”
– Marks on the group: “We really have a smaller group of running backs. For them to step in and be physical the way they have in pass protection, to be honest, it’s been surprising.”
– The only tailback who was made available to the media this spring was Bertoli, who is no longer with the team.
– Harsin, on Bertoli leaving: “Charles had some other things in life that he wanted to pursue. There’s no issue with that. I have a lot of respect for Charles and what he did for this program. ... We’ll make adjustments. There will be possibilities in recruiting where the numbers change because of that. When it’s all said and done, numbers-wise, we’ll be fine. You never have enough depth but we will have depth at that position.”
– Associate head coach and former running backs coach Kent Riddle on Marks, whom he coached at Boise State: “He’s doing a great job. For the guys, there’s a lot of continuity because when he was a player I was his coach, so a lot of the same things we were doing he’s continued to do with them and he’s built on it and put his own personality on it. For them, they’ve got a guy who truly did play running back. Shoot, I was a quarterback. I think that’s helping them.”
– Harsin on the arrest of Sheard, who won’t be joining the team: “It’s tough because you build a relationship with a young man. Unfortunately, people make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are so big that it hurts them and it did in this situation – and that’s not the standard that we have for our players or we have for our program. At the same time, we wish him the very best. Hopefully he gets the help that he needs, gets people that will be there for him and gets an opportunity again, a chance in life to better himself. And that’s not easy.”
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SPRING BALL COVERAGE