Bronco Beat

Boise State football position breakdowns: Can McNichols carry the load at tailback?

I'm previewing the Boise State football team by position. I'll post a blog with many notes and quotes about the position and write a feature for the newspaper that runs the following morning.

Today: Tailbacks

Previously: Linebackers

TAILBACKS ROSTER

39 Kelsey Young, 5-10, 198, R-Sr.

21 Jack Fields, 5-9, 194, Sr.

26 Devan Demas, 5-8, 175, R-Jr.

30 Ryan Wolpin, 5-8, 191, R-So.

13 Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 205, So.

10 Cory Young, 5-10, 200, R-Fr.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

Tailback

Jeremy McNichols, 5-9, 205, So.: Coach Bryan Harsin called him the "future of our backfield" in December after watching "The Weapon" provide a needed spark as a true freshman. McNichols finished the season with 17 rushes for 159 yards and a touchdown (a 9.4-yard average) and 15 catches for 155 yards and a touchdown (a 10.3-yard average).

Kelsey Young, 5-10, 198, R-Sr. OR Devan Demas, 5-8, 175, R-Jr.: Young appeared in 41 games at Stanford in a hybrid tailback/wide receiver role. He transferred to Boise State hoping for an opportunity to show he can be a bell-cow back. He was Stanford's second-leading rusher last year with 331 yards on 66 carries (5.0-yard average). Demas led Boise State’s returning tailbacks with 173 rushing yards last year on 6.9 yards per carry. He’s the team’s fastest player.

THE BREAKDOWN

Overview: The Broncos must replace one of the most used, most productive tailbacks in college football history. Jay Ajayi rushed for 1,823 yards and 28 touchdowns and added 50 catches for 535 yards and four touchdowns last season. Combined, he touched the ball 397 times. Coaches have left open the possibility of another one-man show in the run game but it's more likely that two or three backs will split those touches. "I don't know if we'll know that till the third or fourth game," coach Bryan 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 is the leading candidate but has 17 career carries. Kelsey Young has the most experience but is getting a crash course in the offense. Demas is the team's fastest player but has pass-protection and ball-security questions. Fields was an immensely productive high school player but never has shown explosiveness in college. And Cory Young, who excelled in the Spring Game, hasn't played in a college game. "Everybody's hungry," Demas said. "We've got a great group, so it's going to be a good year."

Key to success: Coaches will need to find the right mix. None of these tailbacks seems likely to get the ball 400 times. The key is to find the right situations for each -- and play the hot hand at the right times. Coach Bryan Harsin, who was the offensive coordinator when the Broncos often used multiple backs, and running backs coach Lee Marks, who was part of an effective committee as a player, should have a good feel for it. "In our room, it's just really all about toughness right now," Marks said. "Who's going to get those tough yards? Who's going to step up on an inside blitz or an edge rusher and pick him up and not have a problem with that? ... First downs and touchdowns, that's all we look for."

Reason for concern: The Broncos don't have a complete back like Ajayi on the roster with the combination of size, speed, power, receiving ability and blocking ability. That's why he's in the NFL -- his combination of skills is rare. They'll start the season not knowing who they can trust on the goal line or who has a knack for making a key play in crunch time. "After the first game, I think we'll know (the starter)," Marks said. "It will be good to see them all get an opportunity. When the real bullets are flying, that's when we're really going to see who that guy really is for us."

Star player: Someone in this group is going to rush for 1,000 yards and become the star, but there isn't one yet. The last time the Broncos didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher was 2008.

Breakout performer: As sure as coaches were in December that McNichols was next in line at tailback, it's easy to believe he'll have a big season. He's versatile, quick and bigger than last year. "I certainly have confidence in Jeremy," Harsin said before fall camp. "I don't know if he's got that (every-down ability) yet. We have to wait and see."

Newcomer to watch: Kelsey Young brings some much-needed experience to the group. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season at a Pac-12 school -- that's a pretty strong indication that he'll succeed at Boise State. "There are times where you definitely can see that experience for him where he makes a cut and you're like, 'Whew, that was a real cut,' " Marks said.

Quotes/notes

-- Demas rushed for 173 yards last season. That's the most by a returning tailback.

-- Fields finished with 31 yards but made one of the most important plays of the season in the Fiesta Bowl. He came in when Ajayi got shaken up in the first quarter and delivered the block that allowed then-quarterback Grant Hedrick to throw a deep ball for a touchdown. "Jack Fields came in there in the Fiesta Bowl for us and had a big block that really might have won us the game," Marks said. "That was a huge play in the ballgame."

-- The group doesn't have a true freshman. The Broncos have two commits for next year, though.

-- McNichols didn't make his debut until October last season, when the Broncos needed another offensive playmaker. He didn't mind playing a shortened season. "I was excited," he said. "I came here to play. When they said I had a chance to play, I was happy."

-- McNichols operated his own mini-playbook last season as "The Weapon," a tailback/wide receiver combo.

-- McNichols on why he wanted to play running back instead of wide receiver in college: "They get the ball the most."

-- Marks on his group: "I really have a great group, so I hope we get a chance to play with multiple guys and maybe one guy ends up being the featured guy and hopefully a couple thousand-yard running backs. That would be pretty nice."

-- Marks on his first year as the Boise State running backs coach: "I get chills because this is obviously a dream come true and I wouldn't want to be any other place. I hope I'm at Boise State for 100 years."

-- Demas on where he needs to improve: "Just be better receiving the ball, better in the pass game. If you can't block and protect the quarterback, they're not going to put you on the field."

-- Demas ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds, a team best. He said wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes might think he can run faster. "He's probably got me in the first 10 but after that I'll probably catch him," he said.

RELATED POSTS

Games likely to determine top tailback

Player spotlight: Devan Demas

McNichols ready to expand his role

Tailback race about to heat up

Young brothers compete for tailback job

Kelsey Young wanted chance to showcase talent

Email me at ccripe@idahostatesman.com.

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