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Crowded offensive backfield becoming source of strength for Colorado football

Freshman running back Anthony Hankerson has added depth to what is becoming a versatile Colorado Buffaloes backfield. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Freshman running back Anthony Hankerson has added depth to what is becoming a versatile Colorado Buffaloes backfield. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Even without the services of Alex Fontenot, the Colorado running backs room has become crowded.

It’s also a space that is growing into a place of equal opportunity.

There haven’t been many bright spots within CU’s struggling offense during an 0-5 start, but the play of the Buffaloes’ running backs has been one of them. Overall, the group’s impact has been limited as CU typically has fallen behind swiftly and steeply in every game. During the preseason the receiving corps was tabbed as a potential strength of the offense, but as CU regroups with the start of the interim Mike Sanford era at home on Saturday against California (12:01 p.m., Pac-12 Network), it is the collective depth and versatility in the backfield that could be ready to shoulder more responsibilities.

“We’ve been emphasizing trying to find a rhythm,” running back Deion Smith said. “The thing that gets us week-to-week is we’ll have our game plan, and then we’ll get out there and a series of events will happen and we’ll get behind. And now our game plan changes. Instead of us playing loose, we’re a little bit more conservative just because we feel the urgency of OK, we’re behind, we’ve got to get points up now; we’ve got to get these big chunks.

“The biggest thing for us is just focusing on what we do best and trying to find that rhythm.”

Fontenot is expected to miss his fourth consecutive game due to a chest injury, but the return of Jayle Stacks after a two-game absence, combined with encouraging results from freshmen Anthony Hankerson and Charlie Offerdahl, suddenly gives the Buffs an array of weapons in support of Smith, the Buffs’ leading rusher.

Smith spent the first three weeks as the top option out of the backfield, but he has carried the ball only six times over the past two games. He did have a 41-yard reception at Arizona, but the Buffs also received big plays from Offerdahl, who averaged six yards on three carries and recorded a 36-yard gain on a screen pass, and Hankerson, who rushed for 68 yards on 12 carries (a 5.7 average).

“In terms of starts or who gets the first carry, I know a lot of people put a lot value in that,” Sanford said. “But when we’re a rotational group, and we have openers that are scripted, you’re going to put the right guys in position. It might even be with having a third down plan in mind.”

Sanford said Fontenot is “trending in the right direction,” but with seven games remaining in a lost season there might be a natural inclination to give longer looks to younger players like Offerdahl and Hankerson. Smith, a junior, remains the Buffs’ leader in carries (34), rushing yards (195) and yards per attempt (5.7).  Yet even though Smith’s attempts over the past two games combined have been fewer than in each of the previous three games, Sanford reiterated this week the pecking order won’t be shuffled simply to showcase younger players.

This is expected to remain a backfield by committee.

“Deion is the leader of that group,” Sanford said. “Then Hank and Charlie and now Jayle, they’re a unit as one and they’re playing as such. So there is no favor with regards to younger backs over Deion. Deion had his best game against Arizona and he had a chip on his shoulder. I love what I saw from Deion. Him learning and growing through the fact that being fresher gives him more quality when he does get those opportunities in space. We are one backfield that’s together as one.”