Is this the year? Not since David Mikell's 1,142 yard campaign in 2003 has Boise State had a 1,000 yard rusher. Lee Marks nearly accomplished the feat in 2004, but Boise State's "running-back-by-committee" philosophy has inflated team rushing stats, but has deprived fans of witnessing a lone Bronco's run at the record books.
Behind a solid offensive line, and with the luxury of extraordinary depth and talent at running back over the last few seasons, the Broncos have racked up league-leading yardage and have been able to control the game tempo very well.
This year looks to be a little different. While Boise State still has one of the best offensive lines in the WAC, the backfield is much, much different. With the graduation of Jeff Carpenter, Lee Marks and Antwaun Carter, Boise State's backfield is missing the depth that it has had in spades the last few years, but may have something that it has been missing: a featured running back with potential for big numbers.
Ian Johnson played somewhat sparingly last season as part of the running back committee, but showed definite flashes of brilliance. Boise State fans saw enough of Johnson, who is coming off of spring sports-hernia surgery, to state in a recent poll on boisestatefans.com that they expect at least an 1,000 yard performance out of the young Californian. The top votes in the poll had a tie at the top between fans who expect between 1,001 yards and 1,200 yards out of Johnson this year and those that think he will have between 1,201 and 1,400 yards. To put this into perspective of the high hopes that Bronco fans have of Johnson; a 1,300 yard performance this year would put him in the top three all-time for Bronco rushers behind legends Brock Forsey and Cedric Minter.
Johnson's 663 yards in 2005 on 119 carries netted him a rushing average of 5.6 yards per carry. If Johnson can duplicate this average in '06 while doubling his touches per game, he may be setting up a 1,300 yard season and if he can shake the ill-deserved label as a "non-receiving" back, he can really pad his all-purpose yardage in 2006. Johnson was recently quoted as saying "I didn't come to Boise State to be part of a committee." That desire by Johnson to be the "go-to" back may very well turn some heads this year and make defenses very aware of his presence.
Helping the Bronco's backfield this year will be the much-anticipated return of Eagle's Jon Helmandollar, who sat out '05 after a stellar freshman year which saw him rack up 14 rushing TD's on just 46 carries. Many think that Helmandollar will make the departure of wrecking ball Antwaun Carter nothing to worry about. Helmandollar has shown flashes of his previous form in spring and fall, but concerns about his longevity remain. Will game experience in a smaller backfield spark the return of "Dollar" in 2006? Bronco nation is optimistic that we will see this bruiser cross the goal line many times this season and in the future.
Brett Denton has been with the Bronco program longer than either of the two backs mentioned above. Most fans hadn't heard much about this Alaska native until this off-season, but have been impressed with his speed and desire in scrimmages. Denton has gained very limited game experience in his tenure at Boise State; 20 total carries for 68 yards in mop-up duties for the Broncos. Denton has persevered, however, being a star on practice squads and special teams and has earned his scholarship this year as a 5th year senior. Denton will probably not factor into the ground game as much as Helmandollar or Johnson in 2006, but will probably take over the very valuable role that Jeff Carpenter left behind: a dangerous double threat out of the backfield that can run and catch very well. I personally expect Denton to replicate "Carp's" numbers from '05 being a 50-80 carry guy with over 300 yards rushing and 300 yards receiving as well.
I fought the Lau and Lau won
Brad Lau may well be the strongest guy on the Bronco squad at any position and if you've seen him walking across campus, you've likely seen his tree-trunk upper arms and Popeye-esque forearms. The Capital high grad is a tank, plain and simple. Lau has also been a prolific pass and run-blocker throughout his time at Boise State. With just five career TD's and not a lot of touches, it is easy to forget that Lau has been a workhorse fullback that has paved the way, along with the offensive line for season after season of impressive rushing by the Broncos. Lau should factor into the run game this year as a "hole-maker" that will make opposing defenses cringe. To put it simply: if you fight the Lau, Lau will win!
Michael Lose will back-up Lau, but don't expect to see him a lot this year if Lau can stay healthy.
The future's so bright…
Boise State was able to pick up some backs this recruiting season even though at times it seemed they wouldn't get any. The running game has so seldom been a concern in the last five years that the Broncos seemed to sit on their hands come recruiting season, but were still able to pick up some scrappy young backs that should play big roles in the future. Jeremy Avery is probably the star of the RB recruiting class coming out of Bellflower HS in California where he racked up impressive yardage, but came out late due to grades. The Broncos look to have found a late gem in Avery who we will see in the coming years. Let's hope he bulks up that 5'9" 161 lb. frame. Jarvis Hodge may be ready to play if he is needed this year, but most fans hope he too can sit this year and gain more experience before suiting up.
Add local walk-on Andy Silsby (from Bishop Kelly) to the mix of Bronco running-backs-to-be and the future looks bright for the Bronco backfield. The recent commitment of Meridian HS stud RB/WR Mitch Burroughs, who will be a class of '07 pickup, has Bronco fans feeling like the "committee" may return in the future. For now, though, it should be Johnson's time to shine…and with his strong supporting cast—look for the Broncos to run all over the competition in 2006.