Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Hired as the head football coach at Colorado in December, Mel Tucker has repeatedly talked about his desire to stock the roster with big, physical running backs.
That raised the eyebrows of freshman Deion Smith, who came to CU last fall with 171 pounds on his 6-foot frame and a game that was more finesse than power.
“At first I was kind of worried because I’m like, ‘OK coach wants bigger backs,'” Smith said this week. “But, if I combo that up with my speed and physicality, I feel like it’ll equal out.”
Part of a talented, but inexperienced, backfield, Smith is now tipping the scale at 193 pounds and making progress in his quest to become the type of tailback CU wants.
“Pass protection was the hardest thing to pick up on, but other than that, I feel like I’m having a pretty good spring,” he said. “I still have a lot of stuff I need to do, a lot of stuff I need to show.”
He’s not alone. The top two tailbacks from last year — Travon McMillian and Kyle Evans — have graduated and the No. 3 back, Beau Bisharat, is now playing tight end.
Sophomore Alex Fontenot (11 career rushing attempts) is the only experienced scholarship tailback. The other four are redshirt freshmen Smith and Jarek Broussard and true freshmen Joe Davis and Jaren Mangham.
For Smith, the top priority was getting bigger, which he did while redshirting last season and through the winter strength program.
“I have the weight on my frame in order to get those people off me and get physical,” he said. “In the past, I’ve always been the type of runner that’s been speed, finesse and try to make you miss. Coach Tuck, his emphasis is physical, physical. I had to be physical, lower my pads and run through some guys at certain times. It’s just embedded into your mind. When you see someone in front of you and you don’t have a lot of space, the first thing you’re going to do is be physical and try to lower your pads and do it.
“Honestly, we don’t have any choice. If you’re not being physical, you’re going to stick out.”
Smith’s physicality is still a work in progress. Running backs coach Darian Hagan said Smith is running hard, but that’s only part of the game.
“In the pass game, he’s still a little timid,” Hagan said. “He’ll go over and try to strike you, but he’s not striking you like Alex is striking you. I want to see him be more physical in the pass game. In the pass game, you’ve got to grow up a little bit.
“He’s come a long way. The thing about him, he has to constantly think about it. It’s not second nature to him right now. Once it becomes second nature to him, he’s going to be really, really good for us.”
With a young group, the Buffs have to have a sense of urgency in getting their tailbacks physically ready to run and pass protect.
“That’s what is required of that position,” Tucker said. “Running backs, they have to be physical in pass protection. That’s critical that those guys can protect our quarterback and know what to do. We want our runners to run hard and run through arm tackles, yards after contact and always fall forward.
“(Smith) is getting plenty of opportunities to show that he can do that.
Hagan said he likes what Smith is doing as a runner “probably 80 percent of the time.” The other 20 percent, Smith isn’t making the correct play, such as trying to bounce a run to the outside when it’s being blocked to go inside.
“Once he understands you can make a jump cut and get that vertical, you can do some things with that,” Hagan said. “He has to see it first. He did it (Wednesday) and he didn’t even know he did it.”
That’s a good sign that Smith is progressing and putting himself in position to stand out in a tight competition. With four practices left in spring, Fontenot may be leading the pack, but Smith is not far behind.
“Everybody’s having fun, we’re getting after each other, we’re pushing each other,” Smith said. “It’s a deal like, ‘He makes a play; OK, let me go in and make a play next.’ That makes everybody in the room turn in and want to do stuff.”