Brooks: Buffs’ Four RBs Approach Paying Off So Far
BOULDER – Phillip Lindsay isn’t a count-his-carries kind of running back, and neither are the three other University of Colorado tailbacks who have shared time (and carries) through the Buffaloes’ first three games.
In the scheme of CU’s 2014 ground game, it pays to be selfless rather than selfish. It isn’t impossible over the next two months that one Buffs back will be called on for 25 or more carries on a single Saturday, but at this point it’s unlikely.
Hoping to take a toll on defenses, CU opened the season wanting to use four running backs with mostly dissimilar styles. There’s big and powerful, smaller and quicker, swift and slashing. And dividing carries among that diverse foursome – the “Quad Squad” maybe? – is how it’s played out entering Saturday’s final non-conference game against Hawai’i (noon, Folsom Field, Pac-12 Networks).
Thus far, Christian Powell’s 35 attempts – that’s 11.2 a game – for 206 yards are the team high. Michael Adkins II, who has been slowed by an ankle injury, is next with 23 carries for 70 yards, and following him are Tony Jones (16-91) and Lindsay (18-80).
Powell – CU’s big back at 230 pounds – is averaging a team-best 5.89 yards a carry, followed by Jones at 5.69. It’s only mid-September and a rugged Pac-12 Conference schedule awaits, but as a team the Buffs are averaging 174 yards a game – nearly 55 yards more than their final 2013 rushing average.
Lindsay, averaging 4.4 yards a carry and 22.2 yards on 10 kickoff returns, sees game-by-game improvement in the running game that’s traceable to several factors. One is a camaraderie that has developed in the backfield.
“As a group, the running backs have gotten closer,” he said. “We’re accepting our roles and now we’re able to just flow with it and help each other out. If we see something we make sure everybody sees it. It’s all about helping each other out and that’s helping us on the field.”
Undoubtedly speaking for his backfield mates, Lindsay’s concerns for more carries and yards are outweighed by a mantra introduced early in August camp by coach Mike MacIntyre. It’s “Do Your Job,” and Lindsay contends if the Buffs do that they’ll succeed on every front.
“I don’t worry about statistics, yards . . . I worry about getting my job done, making my blocks,” he said, adding that being able to “cut” defensive players is a blocking benefit not available to him in high school. “When I got here and they talked about cutting, I thought, ‘That’s my best friend now.’
“But I don’t think of it like I want to get in more (carries). It’s like when I get in it’s time for me to play. When I get in, I try to be ready for the challenge and I’m excited about it. I want to continue to stay focused on the little things; those are what lead to bigger things.”
IN THEIR 38-24 LOSS LAST weekend to now-No. 15 Arizona State, the Buffs rushed for a season-high 232 yards. Their running game numbers have steadily climbed through three games, from 134 vs. Colorado State to 156 against Massachusetts to Saturday night’s total.
In their 200-plus yard outing last weekend, MacIntyre said his running backs did something they hadn’t done previously – break tackles. “That’s where you go from 120 yards in a game to 180 or 200,” he said. “You break a few tackles and you go for 30 or 40 more yards . . . you break two shoestring tackles and you’re at 180 or 200. That’s what we see on film. I knew eventually we would break some of those.”
Also, he said CU’s offensive line stayed on blocks longer and Powell, who rushed for 118 yards against ASU, made “two great cuts” at the line of scrimmage that allowed him to break two long runs. In fact, added MacIntyre, all the backs “are running downhill better and making better cuts.”
Adkins, the Buffs’ leading rusher in 2013 (59.4 yards a game), has had just seven carries in the past three games. MacIntyre said the ankle injury “has bothered him the last couple of weeks. And he had the fumble (vs. ASU) and that bothered him a little bit. Hopefully he’ll be back and ready to go this week.
“But the other guys are running good, so it’s kind of who’s hot. Christian and Lindsay have been running well the last couple of games and ‘ToJo’ (Jones) made some good runs against UMass.”
Jones said the four-back approach and the toll it took on the Sun Devils was apparent: “Yeah, you could see the tackles with their hands on their hips, getting down in their positions slow. I mean, it’s definitely a great thing. When you’ve got fresh running backs you can drive the ball 90 yards. You can see it’s helping. Even if the O-line gets a little tired, the running backs are fresh. When we’re tired and the O-line is tired it’s not a great result. But when we’re all staying fresh we’re pushing down the field.”
Running backs coach Klayton Adams agreed: “I see it, but the challenging part for us is trying to figure out the best way to use all of them. What we kind of figured out is just let them roll, let Brian (Lindgren, offensive coordinator) call the plays the way that he’s comfortable calling them and don’t worry about who’s in there. Let them run it. A fresh really good player is better than a tired really good player. We’ll keep rolling them in there.”
If Lindgren’s challenge is play calling, Adams’ is making sure his foursome sees playing time at the appropriate time. Each of them, he said, has dedicated himself to off-field tape and playbook study. Still, he’s working with four players rather than the customary two and that, he said, means “they’ve got to do good jobs because they might only get one shot at it.”
Jones rushed five times for 33 yards against ASU, which followed a seven-carry, 47-yard performance against UMass. He said has felt more energized the last couple of games and is running with a more explosive burst: “I feel like that; I have for the last couple of games. I had a lot of energy, man. Seeing Christian and Michael, how they compete, it’s hard not to compete with that and try to be the best. It gives the whole running game some confidence and the offensive line some confidence, too.
“But I’m just trying to do anything I can – extra work or whatever like working with the quarterbacks to develop trust in me to dump the ball out in the flat. I’m trying to be as balanced as I can be.”
ADAMS BELIEVES JONES BENEFITTED greatly from CU’s off-season strength and conditioning work and gained “more second-level explosiveness. He’s a little stronger, older, faster and more comfortable with what we’re doing offensively. He’s able to react; I think it’s kind of a comfort level thing with him right now. I really like the way he’s running.”
There’s also the fact that Jones is the lone senior among the backfield quartet and appears to be more focused on making a final season mark. But Adams says in the two years he’s dealt with Jones, “I’ve always thought he was really into it. I don’t know that’s changed a lot, but anybody going into their senior years sees that this is the last opportunity. But I’ve thought he’s always had a sense of urgency and been a great kid and hard worker.”
A consensus area of improvement in the running game is in short-yardage – read: goal line – situations. The Buffs have experienced red zone difficulties that Lindsay attributed to “attitude . . . once you get in short yardage it’s about attitude. I know we just have to handle our business. A couple of times I didn’t get that one yard and I take that on myself. We work on that every day. ‘Coach Mac’ has a period where we have inside running from the one-yard line. It always happens in a game so we have to be ready to execute.”
Adams said a goal line alignment using the 230-pound Powell behind 260-pound fullback George Frazier is a possibility worth considering. He also said Lindsay had run effectively in the red zone last spring and in August camp with Powell playing fullback, or simply running Powell at tailback. Those have been the favored short-yardage alignments thus far.
“In fall camp we decided this is our mentality when we’re down there,” Adams said. “But we’ve got to find some ways to disguise it. We’ve had some situations where we were successful and some where we weren’t. Some were pivotal points in the game; it’s been a priority to study it and figure out what we can do best with our personnel and not throw a bunch of new stuff in and let the guys do what they’re comfortable with.”
The ultimate goal is to balance the offense, but here’s where the “take what the defense gives you” adage comes into play. MacIntyre won’t “beat my head against the wall” if an opponent is effectively slowing CU’s run game. “We’re going to try and throw it,” he said. “But it depends on what (the defense) is doing and where you are in the game.”
Holding a lead and letting the clock run with an efficient running game is ideal, but the page is flipped if the Buffs are behind and trying to come back. Offensive and defensive synchronicity is the goal.
Said MacIntyre: “The better defense we play the better we’ll run it and the better we run it the better defense we’ll play – at times . . . unless we score a ton of points.”