Shakeup at Running Back

The rotation at the running back position will again have to undergo some adjustments, just as it has with every game this season so far. Cougar coaches have had to deal with suspensions, movement in the depth chart, and now injuries, all while trying to field the best running back group they can.

The latest blow to the Cougar backfield that the coaching staff has done its best to deal with is the loss of Fui Vakapuna for at least a month due to a broken hand sustained against Tulsa. Just as Vakapuna was getting his legs back and regaining his form, the Cougar offense will have to make do without his services for the next few games.

"The sad part is that [Vakapuna] was just getting to where he was like his old self," said running back coach Lance Reynolds. "He was just starting to get better and he breaks his hand, but we'll be able to work him out between now and when he comes back. He just won't be able to use his hand."

Fans, coaches and everyone else has been yearning for Vakapuna to regain the form he showed early last season before he sustained a high ankle sprain. So far this season it's been evident that his pre-injury form is yet to come, and now the hope is that he'll be completely back to form once his hand fully heals.

"He wasn't all the way healthy," said Reynolds regarding Vakapuna. "You could see that by the way he played and the way he cut. So that part will be good - that we can now have him back at his own form when he does return - and we'll have to make do without him until he does get back, which will be difficult."

With only three serviceable scholarship running backs remaining on the roster, depth will be a major issue in the running back ranks during the coming month.

"We simply can't afford another injury," said Reynolds. "We have three guys with Harvey Unga, Manase Tonga [and] Joe Semanoff who we'll rotate, and then Wayne Latu, but not much beyond those guys, so yeah, depth is a major concern until Fui gets back."

The Complete Package

Given the nature of offensive coordinator Robert Anae's offense, the running back's role is expanded much more beyond just running the football out of the backfield. Cougar running backs are called upon to be productive receivers and blockers, doing a bit of everything in order for the system to function at a high level.

"All [running backs] have to block and all of them have to catch," said Reynolds. "There's a lot of dirty work that goes on with that group. They have to be able to do everything, and we need everyone we put in to be able to pick up every blitz [and] catch when they're asked to, along with running the ball."

Most notably among the responsibilities Reynolds and other coaches are looking at the running backs to fulfill is effective pass-blocking. Over the first three games, quarterback Max Hall has been sacked from the edge due to a missed assignment, which has led to turnovers that the team simply can't afford.

"Max is taking too many hits, for sure," said running back Joe Semanoff. "He's a tough guy and it's very impressive to all of us how he's able to take the hits and keep coming back, but we simply can't let him get hit anymore. That's on us. We need to do a better job picking up blitzes."

So for the next month the Cougars will utilize a rotation of Unga, Tonga and Semanoff, and hope for the best as each will be called upon to do basically a little bit of everything to ensure Cougar offensive success.

"We're ready," said Semanoff. "I know that my role will be increased and I'm confident that I can get it done. We have a lot of talented running backs in this program and we're going to do everything necessary to get it done."

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