Coming into the 2007 season, you might think Boise State fans ought to have little to worry about with the Bronco running game. After all, the #2 rusher in the country is on board, behind a seasoned and daunting offensive line that has powered a top twenty rushing program for three consecutive years. Moreover, the third leading rusher on the team is also returning, as well as the initiation of two promising redshirt freshmen.
Even so, two questions bring some uncertainty regarding the Bronco running game in 2007. 1) Will the passing game be sufficiently productive to keep defenses from solely keying on Ian Johnson? That question will be addressed by another Bronco Country correspondent, but the success of the running game will be contingent on the success of the passing game. And 2) is there sufficient depth in the running game to shoulder some of the workload for #41?
The depth question doesn't pertain to the fullback / h-back rotations, as Michael Lose and Richie Brockel will bring plenty of heft to bear in those specialty roles. At fullback, Lose is another walk-on success story for the Broncos. Patiently biding his time, learning from the example of Brad Lau, Lose should be ready to plow into linebackers to create seams into the secondary. Brockel, a high-school fullback, will likely see time as the h-back, shifting to that slot with Boise State's deep platoon of tight-ends.
Also for depth, the Broncos do return Vinny Peretta, who rushed for over 300 yards last year. Peretta's versatility and experience are more needed for wide receiver, although he will undoubtedly get a few handoffs and direct snaps. Peretta, Lose, and Brockel will most likely have limited assignments, but they give Offensive Coordinator Bryan Harsin rich game-time options. Significantly, with the return of Chris Strausser as tight-end coach and running game coordinator, we will see new wrinkles in the Bronco running attack.
After a close and spirited competition with Jarvis Hodge during spring practice, Jeremy Avery apparently has won the audition for backup duties at running back—a slight, fleet-footed runner, whose open field acceleration is startling. Avery, a red-shirt freshman, proved a most durable and reliable runner, averaging over 20 carries per game during his senior year at Bellflower High School of Los Angeles. Hodge presents a more of north-south style running game, one who isn't afraid to make a nasty lick back on a would-be tackler.
Barring injury, this stable appears deep enough so that two highly touted freshmen might be able to keep their redshirt status for the season: Stockton's Doug Martin and Texan D. J. Harper.
Of course, the man when it comes to the Bronco running game is Heisman Trophy Candidate, All-American Ian Johnson.
Last year, IJ broke Bronco season rushing records for total yards and yards per game. He also had the second most carries in a single season ever by a Bronco back. His historic breakout performance against Oregon State resulted in his tying the single-game touchdown mark and having the third highest single-game rushing total. Only Brock Forsey has enjoyed more touchdown carries in a season than IJ. Johnson currently stands #5 on the all-time rushing list as a Bronco. If he matches his 2006 campaign, he'll be #2, fewer than 400 yards behind the legendary Cedric Minter. And only John Smith has achieved a higher career yards per carry average as a Bronco.
There is no question about IJ's heart, strength, conditioning, mental toughness, and guts. After the Oregon State game, all the WAC defensive coordinators primed their plans to stop #41. It will be the same for 2007. If Ian Johnson hits that magic 22-25 carries per game, stays injury free, and if the passing game gets the linebackers to play honest, he should be able to deploy his uncanny patience, great vision, and instant speed to make use of those big hosses ahead of him. For all his elusiveness, IJ also knows how to finish a run when it is necessary to go through tacklers, to get to the end zone no matter how many defensive backs he must take with him.
And for Ian, there is room for improvement in meeting personal challenges. He has gained about 15 pounds in the off-season, and he's reporting personal bests in the weight-room. Running backs coach Jeff Choate also wants Ian to be more disciplined in reading blocks. No doubt, when the Weber State game finally begins, Ian Johnson will be all too happy for all the pre-season hype and hoo-hah to be done with. Hollywood, after all, can stand only so much Hollywood, and it'll be time to play ball, the game he loves.
Quite simply, Bronco fans today have the humbling privilege of witnessing the greatest running back ever to don the Blue and Orange. From K.C. Adams to Terry Zahner, from Abe Brown to Chester Grey, Boise State has enjoyed a storied history of gifted, swift, and courageous running backs. This latest chapter is, indeed, the very best of times.