CU Buffs position preview: Running backs lack experience, but not talent

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Sophomore Alex Fontenot is the veteran of the Colorado running back group, but ran the ball just 11 times in 2018. He’s expected to be one of the leading rushers for the Buffs this season.

In taking over Colorado’s starting quarterback position in 1989, Darian Hagan was blessed with plenty of talent.

What he didn’t have was much experience, having played sparingly as a freshman the year before.

“Nothing to prove that I could be a really good player,” he said. “Then, (quarterbacks coach Gary) Barnett took a really good interest in me and got me ready to play.”

Now in his fourth season as the Buffaloes’ running backs coach, Hagan faces the same task as Barnett did 30 years ago. Hagan’s group has talent, but very little experience.

“My job is to make sure all six of those guys are ready to play at any given time, and they will be,” he said.

Leading up to fall camp, which starts Aug. 1, BuffZone.com is previewing each position group for the Buffs. In this first installment, the focus is on the running backs.

During the last three seasons, Hagan and the Buffs have had the luxury of leaning on Phillip Lindsay (1,189 yards in 2016 and 1,474 in 2017) and Travon McMillian (1,009 yards in 2018), who are both now in the NFL.

What’s left at CU is a collection of talented underclassmen with a lot to prove. Sophomore Alex Fontenot is the veteran, but entering his third season in the program, he’s got just 11 career rushing attempts. The only other back with game experience is walk-on Chase Sanders, who has four career attempts.

Redshirt freshmen Jarek Broussard and Deion Smith and true freshmen Joe Davis and Jaren Mangham are fighting for roles, as well.

Hagan said he has an idea of which backs will emerge as the “lead dogs,” but said, “We’re just going to let it play out. I think we’re going to be a running back by committee. The guy who gets hot and stays hot will be the guy who will finish the game.”

Although the Buffs have leaned on a single back the past three years, first-year head coach Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson have a different approach.

Tucker came to CU from Georgia, which featured two 1,000-yard backs in each of the last two seasons. As the OC at Minnesota in 2016, Johnson’s offense had two backs with at least 138 carries and 650 yards. CU hasn’t had two backs with type of productivity since 2002 – when Barnett was head coach.

“Coach Tucker doesn’t want just one guy playing, coach Johnson doesn’t want just one guy playing and I don’t want just one guy playing,” Hagan said.

Which guys play will be determined in fall camp and throughout the season, but Fontenot and Mangham could be the leaders of the group, if healthy.

Fontenot is the fastest of the CU backs and, along with Davis, one of the best pass blockers, Hagan said. The Buffs will be looking for Fontenot to be more consistent this fall.

“Some days he shows that he is (ready to be a lead rusher), some days he shows that he’s not,” Hagan said.

Mangham enrolled early and went through spring ball, impressing his coaches and teammates along the way. He is CU’s most powerful runner and also a good receiver.

“Sky’s the limit,” Hagan said of Mangham. “Depending on what he does and how he dedicates himself over the years, I think he can be a really, really, really good player. He’ll be a guy that we haven’t seen around here in a long time.”

Hagan said Mangham reminds him of Chris Brown, who rushed for 1,744 yards at CU in 2002.

“He’s a little bit faster than Chris, but their running style is identical – upright and running over people,” Hagan said.

Smith’s versatility as a runner and receiver out of the backfield will make it hard to keep him off the field, as well. Broussard and Davis also have great potential, but need work in particular areas to be more complete.

Overall, it’s a group Hagan said he really likes, even if there isn’t much experience.

“They’re all eager to play; they’re really, really smart players; they’re really talented players and they’re hungry,” Hagan said. “They’ll be ready. They’ll show up.”

Position: Running backs

Returners (2018 statistics)

Alex Fontenot, So., 6-0, 195 (11 att., 43 yards, 1 TD)

Chase Sanders, Jr., 6-0, 190 (4 att., 8 yards; walk-on)

Additions

Jarek Broussard, Fr., 5-9, 180 (redshirt freshman)

Deion Smith, Fr., 6-0, 185 (redshirt freshman)

Joe Davis, Fr., 5-11, 210 (true freshman)

Jaren Mangham, Fr., 6-2, 215 (true freshman)

Losses

Beau Bisharat, Sr. (moved to tight end; 21 att., 143 yards; 1 catches, 4 yards, 1 TD)

Travon McMillian (graduated; 201 att., 1,009 yards, 7 TD; 14 catches, 118 yards, 1 TD)

Kyle Evans (graduated; 69 att., 201 yards, 3 TD; 5 catches, 63 yards, 1 TD)

Donovan Lee (graduated; 2 att., 9 yards)

2019 outlook: Despite the lack of experience, this could be one of the most important positions on the offense this year. Hagan said he expects running backs to handle about 60 percent of the offensive touches (rushing attempts and receptions) in coordinator Jay Johnson’s offense. The last time Johnson ran an offense, at Minnesota in 2016, the running backs accounted for 63 percent of the touches, compared to 46 percent at CU last year. To handle that much of a workload, several different backs will play this year for the Buffs. “The more guys you have, the more explosive you can be, the more things you can do with the offense,” Hagan said. Although four of the five scholarship backs haven’t played in a game, Hagan said there’s confidence in the group because most of been at CU for at least a year, while the true freshmen were here in January for spring ball. “There’s not a lot of unknown,” Hagan said.