2015 Preview: Boise State Running Backs

With running back Jay Ajayi lost to the fifth round of the National Football League Draft, it opens up playing time in the Boise State backfield. Who will step forward to lead the group this fall? BroncoCountry ThatBroncoGuy is up next in our preview of the 2015 Bronco football team.

Year Of The Running Man

 by ThatBroncoGuy


 

End Of The Line  


Freight train, freight train, rollin' so fast,


Freight train, freight train, please don't roll past.


Freight train, freight train, won't you ease my mind?


Freight train, won't you carry me down the line?


-D.P. Fitzgerald 

 

The J-Train. Jay Ajayi. Fifty career rushing touchdowns.  Fifty-five total touchdowns.  Seventeen 100-yard rushing games. Two 200-yard rushing games.  3,796 rushing yards  and 4,583 all-purpose yards for his three-year career. An average of 5.6 yards per carry on 678 attempts with 330 points.  To say the 2014 season was a productive one for him would be an understatement.  Ajayi accounted for 44% of Boise State's touchdowns in 2014* while garnering seven All-American nods.  He had 45 plays of 10+ yards in conference games, more than any other running back in the NCAA.  It was enough to get him drafted to the Miami Dolphins in the Fifth Round of the 2014 National Football League Draft, despite persistent rumors of knee problems.  


Let’s be honest and realistic, here. Running backs that can and will tote the rock on every single down, cram it down the throat of the defense and run them over, take it to the outside and break away, catch out of the backfield and cover blocking assignments like a man possessed simply do not come around very often. The workload Ajayi carried for the Broncos in 2014 during his redshirt junior season before leaving for the NFL was almost super-human.  


So how do you replace a guy that literally did it all?  The simple answer is, you don’t. The J-Train has left the station, never to return.



The Syndicate 


Boise State has a long tradition of suiting up a squad of running backs, typically with diverse skill-sets, and utilizing them at the most appropriate and opportune times. This “running back by committee” approach was largely eschewed during the 2014 campaign as the coaching staff recognized they had one man who could literally do it all, and opposing defenses couldn’t do a thing to stop him in most instances.  And he refused to come off the field unless he absolutely had to.  When you’ve got a player with a “hot hand” like Ajayi had in 2014, you let him loose to do what he does.  With Ajayi moving on, the opportunity is now there for the other running backs on the roster to step up and earn in-game reps.  


The start of the 2015 season will be different, and harken back to previous years where we’ll likely see a group of different running backs taking carries depending on their skillsets and the needs of the play being run.  Running backs coach Lee Marks alluded to a return to the “running back by committee” approach at least to start the season in his August 16, 2015 media interview, but also said he’s looking to see who starts to emerge as being able to become an every down back.  Who in "The Syndicate" will be able to do that?  Playing time will be the proving grounds. 


The coming season brings a group of running backs, some with experience and others without, that mostly comprise a bit of an unknown quantity to Bronco fans and opponents alike.  Let’s take a look at that group and what each one brings to the game, starting with The Weapon.

 


Listen to the sound of my voice

You can check it on out, it's the weapon of choice, yeah

Don't be shocked by the tone of my voice

It's the new weapon, the weapon of choice, yeah

"Weapon Of Choice" - Fatboy Slim

 


(Video from Hudl.com)

Jeremy The Weapon McNichols - #13 (Sophomore) 


If there is one running back that has the full attention of the coaches, it’s Jeremy McNichols, aka “The Weapon” (as so nick-named by the aforementioned coaching staff). Since last season, they have alluded to McNichols, who has unabashedly declared that his stated goal is to become the second coming of Doug Martin, as “the future” at running back for Boise State.  At 5’9”, 205 lbs. of muscle, McNichols has put in the blood, sweat and tears required in the gym to develop the necessary physique to repeat some of the exploits of the legendary Muscle Hamster.  


As a true freshman in 2014, McNichols was simply too good to keep off the field and we saw him used in nearly every capacity imaginable on the offense, including lining up in the backfield at the traditional RB spot.  And he was electric every time he had the ball in his hands, setting some impressive benchmarks for a true freshman in his rookie season despite not even burning his redshirt until October 4th against Nevada when he caught four balls for 54 yards and rushed once for 28 yards. McNichols also became the first Bronco freshman to record 150 yards rushing (159), 150 yards receiving (155) and 150 return yards (393) in a single-season since Brock Forsey (313/125/337) did it in 1999.  He also had a 41-yard reception which was the longest by a true frosh at Boise State since 2011*.

 

*source:  Jay Tust, KTVB Sports Director 


McNichols, who was recruited out of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, was initially a Utah commit who flipped to the Broncos.  While he had a limited number of carries from the RB spot, he showed he was capable of when he had the ball in his hands. McNichols demonstrated an ability to run between the tackles, trample and split defenders, make guys miss and showed real break-away speed as well as an ability to catch out of the backfield and gain yards with remarkable elusiveness. 


Now, with another year to learn the Bronco offense and develop his body (and recover from a hernia surgery), McNichols may be poised to have a true breakout season. However, missing out on Spring Camp while he recovered and rehabbed following his hernia repair may have hindered his progress, so Fall Camp and his level of participation and progress there will tell the story.  McNichols was listed as the primary running back on the pre-season depth chart Boise State issued for Mountain West Media Days on July 28th.   


Could McNichols be the type of RB that could realistically carry the same workload as Ajayi? Those are some big shoes to fill, to be sure, although McNichols has the work ethic and the fortitude for it.  It may be a role he grows into rather than shoulder immediately, sharing more touches with the other RB’s on the roster than Ajayi did last season. If Jeremy can get his pass-blocking coverages down, he’ll be a force in the backfield.

 

(YouTube video)

Kelsey The Graduate Young - Number TBD (Redshirt Senior)

 For some, home is always where your family is. After earning his Bachelor’s degree in computer science at Stanford with one year of eligibility left to play (which can be used immediately), Kelsey Young decided he needed a change of scenery and opted to take advantage of an opportunity to join his younger brother, Cory, at Boise State. Sibling rivalry should be on full display between the Brothers Young as they push each other and the rest of the running backs on the roster, trying to prove their worth for game-time carries.  

When he committed to and signed with Stanford, Kelsey was rated as a consensus four-star recruit and was highly recruited out of Norco High School in California.  At Stanford, Young (5’10”, 191 lbs.) was used in various capacities, including in a hybrid role, splitting his field time between receiver and running back and also provided some kick return services as a part of his repertoire. In 2013, he appeared in 14 games, rushing 14 times for 110 yards including a 27-yard TD run against California.  In 2014, Kelsey played in 13 games, rushing for 331 yards on 66 carries with an average 5.0 yards per carry and was named to the Doak Walker Award watch list. He’s alluded to his interest in showing off his abilities to make a case for his potential as an NFL player in interviews with local media, so expect him to put in the work to get as many handoffs as he possibly can in his final year of NCAA eligibility. 

What Kelsey Young brings to the Broncos is some true D1 experience at the running back position.  He becomes, by default, the elder statesman of the group.  That should likely translate to sharing his maturity, wisdom and leadership with the other backs on the roster, many of which have little to no meaningful D1 game-time experience under their belts just yet.  Beyond his experience, in his time at Stanford, the elder Young demonstrated blazing speed (he runs a reported 4.47) with the ability to shift on a dime and leave a defender wondering where his cleats went.  When he can get to the edge, he can do some serious damage to an opposing defense, but he’s strong and dangerous between the tackles when needed and knows how to execute his blocking assignments very well.  Kelsey is clearly a cerebral player who should have no trouble picking up the Broncos multiple offense, and the coaches clearly share that sentiment as they listed him as the number two running back on the pre-season depth chart.

 

 

(YouTube video)

Jack The Jackhammer Fields, #21 (Senior) 

Senior running back Jack Fields has had a relatively quiet career at Boise State.  His calling card has been his special teams play for the most part, being relegated to limited touches and mop-up duty behind the J-Train (like most of the backs on the Boise State roster).  While he’s shown flashes here and there of being the devastating power back it was hoped he would become when the Broncos recruited him out of American High School in El Paso, Texas as a part of the 2012 recruiting class, his performances out of the backfield have been inconsistent and rarely reminiscent of the bruising, powerful juggernaut he appeared to be in high school.  Perhaps this is due to the lack of touches behind Ajayi and the inability to really get into a rhythm at the position as a result, but whatever the reason may be, this year is Jack’s last chance to shine.   

Fields certainly has the size at 5’9, 201 lbs., and he’s certainly got the wheels, running a reported 4.53 out of high school.  And, he most certainly has the intelligence to master the Bronco offensive playbook, earning multiple academic accolades including being a two time Mountain West Scholar-Athlete Award winner and two time Academic All-Mountain West player.

Quite frankly, Fields is the biggest puzzle in the Boise State running back corps. The abilities that got him offered and signed as a Bronco have generally been absent from his on-field performances.  At American High School, he was a man among boys, displaying incredible raw power and strength, mowing defenders over and leaving a wake of destruction in his path.  When he wasn’t  running over the top of those defenders, he was juking them so hard they glitched into another dimension.  He also displayed an almost supernatural level of balance and was nearly impossible to bring down, and often left his pursuers feebly chasing after him as he sullied their end zones again and again. 

Ever since I first saw his highlights after he committed to the Broncos, I’ve been dying to be able to call him “The Jackhammer”.  I’ve let him have it for the purposes of this article, but can Jack regain his true form and materialize it at the D1 level, finally, and earn the nickname I’ve set aside for him?  It’s now or never.

 

 

(Video from Hudl.com)

Devan Flash Demas - #26 (Redshirt Junior)

In Spring Camp, redshirt junior Devan Demas showed off his speed, earning his spot as one of the fastest players on the team.  At 5’8” and 179 lbs., Demas runs a legitimate 4.37/40. If he gets out in the open, opposing defenders will be eating dust and having bad dreams about their feet being stuck in quicksand.  Demas also had the highest number of carries behind Ajayi in 2014, rushing 25 times for 173 yards at 6.9 yards per carry and two touchdowns.  Even with those limited carries, he’s the most seasoned back on the team behind Kelsey Young.  

Devan came to the Broncos out of Cypress Creek High School in Houston, Texas as a part of the 2012 recruiting class.  He redshirted his first season with Boise State and started seeing game time in 2013 as a freshman, averaging 6.0 yards per carry on 21 touches for 125 yards and a touchdown.  He’s a “one-cut and feel the wind as he blurs past you” kind of back and a total nightmare for defensive coordinators once he’s out in the open and on the loose.  Can you hear those opposing defensive coordinators’ collective puckering at that thought?  

Demas has quietly amassed a nice body of work at Boise State thus far, taking advantage of the limited number of touches behind Ajayi that came to him when he had the opportunity.  The 2015 season may offer him a chance to finally really come into his own with Ajayi gone to the NFL.  If Devan continues to take advantage of the touches he gets and performs well, he could see more and more playing time.

 

(Video on Hudl.com)

Cory Speedy Young - #10 (Redshirt Freshman)

 Cory Young came to the Broncos as a consensus three-star recruit out of Norco High School in Norco, California in the 2014 recruiting class, where he put up ridiculous video game statistics.  In 2013, he rushed the ball 324 times for 2,450 yards and 22 touchdown, averaging 7.56 yards per carry as the 12th-leading rusher in California.  His highlight that season was racking up 421 yards against rival Centennial High School. Cory is a speed merchant, even calling himself “Speedy Cory” on Twitter, reportedly running in the 4.47/40 range. In his high school highlights, Cory makes his bones slipping through the tackles and breaking away with a fast burst and an ability to make sudden directional changes to leave a defender turning his feet in different directions.  At 5’10”, 194 lbs. he’s put on some good muscle during his redshirt year and had a breakout performance in the Spring Scrimmage. He may be a pleasant surprise out of the Bronco backfield in 2015.

 

(Video on Hudl.com)

Ryan Wildcard Wolpin - #37 (Redshirt Sophomore) 

The lone walk-on in the Boise State running back corps, redshirt sophomore Wolpin is a bit of an enigma.  Committing to and attending Northern Colorado in 2013 where he redshirted, Wolpin then transferred to Boise State for the 2014 season where he again redshirted due to NCAA eligibility rules for transfers.  He was on campus in time to participate in Spring practices for 2014 and eventually went on to win the Scout Team Special Teams Player Of The Year. 

The reason Wolpin is an enigma is that, by all accounts, he had the talent coming out of high school to warrant more interest from D1 schools. In his senior season, Ryan rushed for 1,368 yards on 203 carries, earning first-team 2012 All-Trinity League honors as well as All-CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division, All-Region and All-State honors playing for Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California (the same high school as McNichols).  This is a freakishly strong back who can push the pile, but still possesses excellent speed, balance and vision with an ability to make guys miss, cover his blocking schemes and catch passes out of the backfield.  How he wasn’t more highly recruited is indeed a mystery, but a happy tragedy for Boise State.  Wolpin is a scholarship level all-purpose back playing as a walk-on at a time that has seen Jay Ajayi move on to the NFL, Aaron Baltazaar leave the program, Charles Bertoli retire and Raymond Sheard never even make it to campus.  If ever there was an opportune time for a walk-on with Wolpin’s talent to make a move, it’s in 2015.

The Great Wall 

So what’s NOT new for these Running Backs, going into 2015?  The biggest thing, both figuratively and literally, is the offensive line, which returns all starters and most of its two-deep rotation.  They’re experienced.  They’re smart.  They’re big.  They’re nasty. They should be able to give any RB in the backfield plenty of creases to run through and plenty of time to do it.  

And, of course, Bryan Harsin returns for his sophomore season as the head coach of the Broncos.  Apart from that, there’s a whole lot that’s different from 2014, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

 

 

 

The Harsin Shuffle

 

When offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. announced he was leaving for a similar position at Notre Dame, Coach Harsin had some decisions to make on how he was going to fill in the blanks in his staff following Sanford’s departure.  The answer came from within as he shook the ant farm a bit and moved some of his coaching staff around.  Most notably, he named Eliah Drinkwitz as the new offensive coordinator of the Broncos.  He also moved Coach Kent Riddle off of RB’s to the tight end group that Drinkwitz had been coaching and then hired assistant strength & conditioning Coach and former Boise State running back Lee Marks to coach the running backs. This reshuffled coaching staff has all worked together as a unit for over a year, now, and have a great deal of experience with many different staff members in previous capacities.  Not having to bring an outsider into the mix and induct them into the chemistry and camaraderie the coaching staff has already established should enable them all to move very smoothly into their new roles.  

For the RB’s, what this coaching change presents is a chance to redefine what the position is for Boise State in the wake of Ajayi’s departure, with the help of a new RB coach in Marks, who played the position at Boise State (and played it well, I might add). This change makes it sort of a mystery as to exactly what we will see from this group as Marks instills his philosophy and techniques and coaches up a group of players we really haven’t seen much of thus far.  Each of these players has strengths that Marks will most certainly be looking to maximize and capitalize on.  

The presence of Drinkwitz at offensive coordinator also changes things quite a bit as he will surely be tweaking the run-heavy offense that so beautifully opened up the passing game we saw last year to his own liking to take advantage of specific players’ skillsets.  His play-calling will also factor in, as will his level of aggressiveness (the word is that Coach Drink likes to play rough, play creative and show no mercy).  If Drink can make the transition to offensive coordinator smooth, teaching his offense to the players and taking advantage of their strengths,  and get the right plays called into the game at the right time, there should be very little negative impact to the team, the RB corps included.   

There’s one other factor at play for Boise State’s RB’s, and that’s the quarterback position.  While we won’t get into all of the amazing stats Grant Hedrick put up in his senior season (because, hey, we’re talking about RB’s here, let’s just say he was really, really good in his last year as a Bronco.  If whoever wins the starting QB slot can run the offense as efficiently as Hedrick did last year, the RB’s should benefit from smooth hand-offs and coverage recognition being called out and adjusted for.  If not, It might get a bit bumpy. Again, having that Great Wall of an offensive line being so seasoned may be just what the Bronco’s new QB and RB tandem will need to give them enough time to settle in and execute.

 

 

Epilogue 

Even in the familiar there can be surprise and wonder.

? Tierney Gearon

 

 While losing Ajayi early to the NFL draft is certainly a loss that stings, particularly in a season where the Broncos will be breaking in a new signal caller and a new OC, a quick glance like the one we’ve taken above reveals a whole host of weapons at the RB position that are easy to get excited about seeing what they are capable of in a live game.  At the very least, with a new OC, a new QB, a new running backs coach and a platoon of RB’s that no one has seen much of since their senior years of high school, the element of surprise is on the side of the Broncos.  Planning for them from a defensive perspective just got that much more difficult.  I, for one, can’t wait to watch how it all plays out.

 

About the Author: ThatBroncoGuy is a Boise State alum, husband, father and a founding member of the Keith Stein Blue Thunder Marching Band. He lives in Boise with his family and enjoys making music, sports and reveling in the ridiculous in his free time.

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