Photo by Gerald Castillo
Running backs make strong impression at Maroon & Gold Spring Game
It was tough to remember the running backs.
Last season, Texas State averaged just 148.1 yards per game, fewest in the Sun Belt. Most of them didn’t come from a running back. Willie Jones III led the team with 295 yards and three touchdowns on the ground just by scrambling out of the pocket. But Jones is no longer part of the team, leaving Texas State in dire need of a jumpstart from the backfield.
Nick Whitworth was brought in by head coach Jake Spavital to find the spark. The running backs coach spent the spring struggling to find someone who could lead the stable forward.
“When I first started, I saw a crew that was pretty great, cultured group,” Whitworth said. “Great attitudes, great effort. And we lacked a lot of production. We were waiting for somebody to kind of take the reins and be the lead horse in the show and it never really happened.”
But after toting the ball for 4.6 yards a carry as a group in Saturday’s Maroon & Gold spring game, the running backs were tough to forget.
“The most rewarding thing for me is seeing us run the ball more efficiently than we’ve been doing,” Spavital said. “But those running backs jump off the tape a little bit. I thought that was pretty good to see from my vantage point.”
Whitworth noted that senior Anthony D. Taylor, junior Jaylin Nelson and redshirt freshman Alec Harris had impressed him throughout spring practice, though the unit did have a few injuries. That held to be true in the scrimmage, as the trio nearly split carries evenly for the majority of opportunities.
“What we’re getting out of those guys is real physical runs,” Whitworth said. “Breaking tackles, pad level, feet, pounding on contact. Some of the things we were missing in the first two weeks of spring ball that I think are showing up in these last two. I’m pretty optimistic, I like where they’re at right now from a production standpoint.”
Taylor took snaps with the first group of the day. After an incompletion on first down, Taylor took back-to-back carries for 11 yards, powering through a scrum on third down to pick up the first. Later in the second half, offensive coordinator Bob Stitt used the same strategy on the defense’s 40-yard-line, feeding Taylor on consecutive plays. The senior produced, gaining 29 yards and pushing the offense into the red zone. Taylor finished the game with 71 yards on nine attempts and one catch for seven yards.
Nelson proved dependable as well. On 3rd and 5 from the defense’s 25, the Bobcats fed Nelson the ball. The junior waltzed up the middle, then cut right for 10 yards. Three plays later, Nelson punched into the endzone on a five-yard touchdown, but it was called back due to a holding penalty. Nelson ran for 38 yards on nine carries and caught one pass for nine yards.
Harris received the most opportunities among the trio, carrying the ball 11 times for 36 yards and one reception for seven yards. The head coach was impressed by all three.
“A.T., he was doing great, he hit a lot,” Spavital said. “I thought Alec Harris did stood out at times. Jaylin Nelson made some plays in there, too. But I mean, we’ve got a lot of good backs and there’s a healthy competition there. So, when they get their opportunity to shine, they’re actually going full speed and trying to get everything out of it.
“If you’re going to win championships, if you’re going to win games, you gotta establish the run game. And I liked what I saw today.”
It’s unclear if anyone has the edge for the starting spot this far out from the season, especially with juniors Robert Brown and Caleb Twyford — the team’s top rushing running backs from last season — sitting out for the exhibition. But Whitworth has made it clear what it’ll take to become the bell cow.
“Our guys aren’t 10-5 speedsters. They’re bigger backs, they’re thick, strong running backs,” Whitworth said. “And so, we’re gonna have to Marshawn Lynch it where we make a guy miss and then we’re just gonna have to effort-run somebody to the endzone. It all counts the same. We don’t have to be fast to create big plays.”
All three backs had runs for double-digit yards in the spring game. The Bobcats will hope for a few more in the fall.