Alex Fontenot always had the physical ability, and he understood there would be a void that needed to be filled in the Colorado backfield this season.
Yet often at the Division I level, raw talent can only take a player so far. And in order to take hold of a leading role with the Buffaloes, Fontenot believed he needed to sharpen his football IQ. According to CU running backs coach Darian Hagan, Fontenot put his first two seasons spent largely on the sideline to good use, and it’s all that film and practice work that has turned Fontenot into one of several pleasant surprises during the Buffs’ 3-1 start heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 home date against Arizona (2:40 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
Fontenot admits he wants to showcase better breakaway speed as the Buffs move deeper into the conference slate. Yet his ability to slow down and pick his spots before accelerating through gaps in opposing defenses has spurred Fontenot’s early success.
“His overall knowledge of the game. He’s picked it up,” Hagan said. “His redshirt year and last year, he didn’t really have a grasp of what we were doing fully. Now he’s taking it to a different level. He understands what we want. He understands what the defenses are trying to do to us. He’s really patient and decisive.
“In high school you just got the ball and took off and outran everybody. Where in college, everything is about angles and double-teams and things like that. If you’re too fast, you’re going to mess up the double-teams. If you’re too slow, the hole is going to open and shut. We always tell them, ‘slow to, fast through.’ Which is slow to the hole and once you see it, hit it and go. He’s done a pretty good job of understanding that and he has taken his game to a different level.”
Fontenot redshirted two seasons ago as a true freshman and played sparingly last year, netting all 11 of his carries (for 43 yards and a touchdown) during the first three games of the season.
Fontenot was able to make a mark during spring drills, however, winning the Fred Casotti Award as CU’s most improved offensive back during the spring. He carried that momentum into the regular season, opening the year with a 125-yard, three-touchdown performance against Colorado State.
Fontenot came back to earth somewhat against Nebraska and Air Force, managing a combined 84 yards on 23 carries. But he bounced back during the Buffs’ win at Arizona State two weeks ago, finishing with 89 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
“The confidence is there. It’s just execution sometimes,” Fontenot said. “But that’s a simple fix in practice.
“Really, (it’s) making the last person miss. There’s a lot of runs I get past the line, I get past the ‘backers, then it’s I get clipped by the safety.”
Though Fontenot has displayed the ability to fill the role of a featured back, Hagan remains pleased with a rotation system that also has allowed freshman Jaren Mangham to shine in spots. While Fontenot struggled to a 3.7 yards-per-carry mark in the Nebraska and Air Force contests, Mangham stepped in to average 4.8 yards per carry in those games, including a two-touchdown outing against the Cornhuskers.
“As long as (Fontenot) stays healthy, he’ll be that guy,” Hagan said. “We still have other guys who are doing a really good job when they get their opportunities. Mangham and Alex are a really good one-two punch. We’re just trying to bring along Deion (Smith). He proved at the Arizona State game that he deserves touches. He did them and did a really good job. I’m really pleased with the whole group.”