Jay Ajayi leads youthful tailbacks group on Boise State football team

By Chadd Cripe
ccripe@idahostatesman.com
© 2013 Idaho Statesman

POSITION REPORT: TAILBACKS

Returning starters (0 of 1): None

Starters lost: D.J. Harper’s six-year run as part of the Broncos’ backfield is over. He rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, at an average of 5.0 yards per carry. He also made 23 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown.

Returning contributors: Redshirt sophomore Jay Ajayi was the No. 2 last year, rushing for 548 yards and four touchdowns on 82 carries (6.7 yards per carry). He has slimmed down a bit this season and steps into a leadership role as the most experienced player in this extremely young group. True sophomore Jack Fields also got some playing time last year, with 43 carries for 135 yards (3.1 yards per carry). “I’ve been really excited about Jay,” running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. “Practice after practice, he’s gotten better. It’s good to see a guy like him who’s played the most take that next step where he is showing some consistency in practice. I expect him to really let that snowball into the summer and into fall camp.”

Other players to watch: Junior college transfer Derrick Thomas (video below) was brought in to add some immediate depth and experience to the running backs room. He rushed 157 times for 829 yards and nine touchdowns last season for Butler Community College. “For a guy to come in and jump into the mix how he has has been good,” Bhonapha said.

Way-too-early projected rotation: Ajayi, Fields/Thomas

Roster:
Tailback
23 Derrick Thomas, 6-0, 207, R-Jr.
27 Jay Ajayi, 6-0, 215, R-So.
21 Jack Fields, 5-9, 198, So.
26 Devan Demas, 5-8, 175, R-Fr.
6 Jamel Hart, 5-9, 210, R-Fr.
35 Charles Bertoli, 5-11, 199, R-Fr.

Incoming recruits: Aaron Baltazar, 5-11, 185, Fr. (video below)

Notes/quotes:

— Bhonapha on the group: “Spring has been OK. One of the things when you’re dealing with so many young guys or new guys, you’ve got to make sure you don’t take certain things for granted. Just because they say they have it doesn’t mean that they necessarily do. When you have six basically young guys, because Jay’s only a sophomore, it’s one of those things where the focus isn’t quite there but if you continue to emphasize that, it will come.”

— On how the running backs can help improve the run game: “Really a good focus on our run keys and making sure we trust our instincts. So many times you overcoach a guy — you need to be doing this, you need to be doing that — but so much of running back is instinctual play. Yeah, I can give you some of your keys, some of the things that can happen, but after that you’ve got to let your instincts take over and trust those.”

— On Ajayi as a leader: “He’s getting better. He does speak up with the group. He does try to help the young guys out when he’s out here and when those guys make mistakes. It’s hard to do that when in some parts of it you’re still trying to figure it out for yourself.”

— On Demas: “He’s shown some flashes here. … He’s a different type of runner. He will have a place hopefully somewhere in the offense.”

— On coaching this group: “This is the fun part because you do know you have so many young guys so you have to continually coach these guys and keep getting them better. Having the guys we had in the past, these guys have just as much potential as those guys, and we have some time with them, so that’s exciting. Because for them to take the steps they’ve taken so early and have to be ready so early, by the time they’re seniors they’ll have a lot of football under their belts, which will be exciting for Bronco Nation.”

— Offensive line coach Chris Strausser on the tailbacks: “All those guys are physical. I like the way they run. There’s not too many of those guys who are going to try to make you miss. They’re going to try to run you over, so that’s a good mentality, particularly as you get down tight (to the goal line).”

— Coach Chris Petersen on Ajayi/Fields: “A year under the belt for both of those guys is going to pay big dividends when we play our first game. … We hope (Ajayi) will make another step — and if he can, he’ll be an impact back, but we have some talent there. At the back position, it’s got to be by committee. Maybe a Doug Martin, but D.J. Harper is right there. Maybe a D.J. Harper, but those other guys are right there. They all have to feed off each other and we need them all to take the next step for us to do what we need to do.”

PREVIOUS POSITIONS:
Offensive line
Defensive line
Defensive backs
Tight ends
Special teams
Wide receivers
Quarterbacks
Linebackers

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Senior Kirby Moore on the offense this spring: “We’ve been doing a good job of executing and we’re playing fast and we’re building momentum as an offense and it’s helping us get long drives out there.”

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One thing to watch for at the Spring Game on Saturday (5 p.m., Bronco Stadium): The wide receivers have emphasized yards after catch all spring but they rarely get to play in live situations to truly test their progress.

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Strausser on the offensive line: “It’s been a little bit inconsistent. That’s the part that has been the most disappointing for me. We came out really well early on. … We came back from spring break and struggled with some stuff.”

Redshirt freshman tackle Steven Baggett is the most improved player in the group, Strausser said, with redshirt freshman guards Mario Yakoo and Travis Averill playing well, too. He’s happy with seniors Charles Leno Jr. (left tackle), Spencer Gerke (left guard) and Matt Paradis (center).

The question mark on the line is the right side, with sophomores Rees Odhiambo (right tackle) and Marcus Henry (right guard) as the favorites.

“They’re doing well — it’s a consistency thing,” Strausser said of the two sophomores. “Rees is a very talented player and when he puts it all together he’s a dominant player. Marcus, he’s got a lot of skill but he’s a ‘play hard’ guy. He needs to stick his nose in there and play hard, which he does most of the time and when he does, he’s good. But again, he needs to be more consistent.”

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A few quotes from defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski:

— On changes to the defense: “Just how we communicate, from the sideline to the field. We’ve streamlined how we sort of package different parts of our defense, so they can latch onto it quicker. There’s less verbiage in the communication.”

— On what he’s looking for in the Spring Game: “We’ve got to get guys on the ground. There’s no do-overs. We’ve got to respond when they make a play. It’s as live of a game situation as we can get and we’ll see how guys respond and how guys perform.”

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Architectural rendering (courtesy of Boise State)

Architectural rendering (courtesy of Boise State)

Here is a photo gallery showing the current state of construction of the new Boise State football complex. The eastern end, which is the least finished, is the entry (first level) and recruiting lounge (second level). The exterior there is mostly glass and likely will begin going into place in the next month.

The project is on schedule with plans for construction to finish by the end of June and interior decorating and move-in to happen in July while the coaches are on vacation. The staff should be in place by the last week of July.

The actual name of the facility has not been finalized. It will be named for Gene Bleymaier.


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Chadd Cripe has spent the past 12 years as the Boise State football beat writer. You can follow him on Twitter @IDS_BroncoBeat.

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