Post-Spring 2008 Preview: Running Backs

Ryan Mathews

The running back group this year loses a dynamic player in the backfield in Clifton Smith. Despite the loss, the overall talent is still stocked with speed, power, and vision. There is always room for improvement, but this backfield will likely be the deepest and most talented in the Pat Hill era.

The group returns three starters from last year. The 2007 season saw five runners go down to injury at some point during the season. Jamal Rashad (season-ending) Lonyae Miller, Ryan Mathews, Anthony Harding and Clifton Smith all were banged up throughout the season, and leaving Kyle Duffy as the only healthy runner.

The major three returning (Miller, Mathews, and Harding) saw extensive time, and all three stepped up and dominated when needed. Each has their unique style, with capabilities that can change the look of the offense with whoever lines up in the backfield and where. The unit also adds some new faces that are promising, as each brings an entirely new dimension to the offense. It will be exciting to see them develop.


The gamebreaker: So. Ryan Mathews (5-11.5, 210)
2007 season stats: 145 att, 866 yds, 14 tds, 6 ypc
Post spring grade: B+

He is arguably the best running back Fresno State has ever had. He came into the program after leading the nation in rushing at Bakersfield (Calif.) West High School in 2006. As a true freshman, he led the nation in with 14 touchdowns. He shattered the Bulldogs freshman record in that category, and he is only going to get better.

He suffered through injuries, most notably to his shoulder, during the course of last season, and his production dropped because of it. Still, he led the team in rushing even though he did not start a game until midseason when injuries pushed him to the forefront. As a true freshman, he may have been thrown too early to the wolves against D1 football speed and contact. His knowledge of the playbook was minimal and he ran on pure instinct most of the season. He had trouble staying healthy due to the game's physical play.

This off-season, he has worked on his strength, adding at least five pounds of muscle to his frame so far, and has gotten bigger in his lower body. His running style invites a lot of physical traffic heading towards him, as he is willing to fight for every yard he can get after contact by moving the pile. The added muscle from the off-season workouts will help him to absorb the punishment of heading into, or dragging that heavy traffic along.

Mathews has the best vision of all the running backs, being able to judge a developing hole and not only get to it, but through it, before anyone can flinch. Besides his great vision, his extra gear is what gives him such a great advantage running the ball. He reaches full speed after his second step. He can break into a full gallop from any angle and speed. Much of that is owed to his very fluid hips and excellent body control.

Mathews still needs to work on his pass protection, including his blitz reads, and receiving the ball out of the backfield. Those two key ingredients will separate him from the rest of the running back group as the clear-cut starter.



Lonyae Miller in spring
photo by BarkBoard.com
The bruiser: Jr. Lonyae Miller (5-11, 215)
2007 season stats: 100 att, 609 yds, 7 tds, 4.6 ypc
Post spring grade: B

Miller is arguably the ‘Dogs most physical back. He is a north and south runner, yet last year, he was the speed back. He came into the season as the starter, and for good reason.

As a true freshman, he came in as one of the most physically ready players to contribute. He was one of two returning rushers last season, with good experience backing up Dwayne Wright in 2006. Miller also dealt with injuries throughout last season, including having a nagging bruised thigh that limited his action. Still, he was second on the team in touchdowns with seven.

His biggest advantage is his physical play, and his strength allows him to dig in and get the tough yards when needed. He also returns as a reliable blocker in the backfield. He worked with his vision and hands over the course of the off-season and it showed in the spring. One of his biggest problems from last year was his ball control, losing the ball a handful of times, some without any contact. His work in the summer and fall camps should help shore that up. He is also working on his receiving, as the backfield has been behind in terms of producing from the air.



Anthony Harding
photo by BarkBoard.com
The handyman: Jr. Anthony Harding (6-0, 215)
2007 season stats: 114 att, 449 yds, 4 tds, 3.9 ypc
Post spring grade: B

Harding returns as the ‘Dogs most reliable blocker, and he best hands out of the backfield.

He was also played injured for a portion of the season. Nevertheless, he shined when he was needed, most notably physically punishing Kansas State when both Miller and Mathews were still hobbled by injuries. While his stats may not jump out at you, his production in the backfield cannot be discounted, especially since he started the year at fullback.

He moved back to tailback because of the rash of injuries last season. He could see extensive time this year in the slot and halfback positions, since he has the edge against the other runners with his blitz and block reads. Harding really has not had a chance to shine in terms of displaying his speed. But when he came into the program, Coach Hill lauded him for one specific detail, and it was that Harding was never caught from behind in his senior year in high school. He has deceptive speed, and he plays every bit as physical, if not more so, than Miller does.

His improvement will depend on how well he adapts to the positions that are asked of him to fulfill. Harding can see action in all skill positions on offense, and gives it the added dimension of an unknown player who may lull a defense to sleep because of his unspectacular numbers, but who can dominate you physically running the ball.

He ended spring on the injured list after his chinstrap was pushed into his gum and lower lip during a live scrimmage. The laceration required stitches, and caused him to miss the spring game. He will be fine for summer workouts, and he could likely start fall camp as the starter.


The leadback: Jr. Reynard Camp, (5'11, 260)
2007 season stats: 7 g, 1 st, 1 rec for 10 yds
Post spring grade: C

Camp is the veteran that leads the group. He is the only true fullback on the roster. He is an imposing blocker, a compact, 260lb bowling ball that will move even guards out of the way for you. He will need to step up after the loss an underrated FB Nate Adams from last year. When FS does go to a power run set, you will likely see Camp in there paving the way. Although not one to receive out of the backfield, he is the ‘Dogs tank when it comes to short yardage.


The rest: Kyle Duffy (5-9, 185), Jamal Rashad (6-0, 215)

Duffy missed the first half of spring. Then, surprisingly, he had one of the better performances in the spring game; he rushed for 54 yards and scored two touchdowns. His runs have been crisp and effective, and he looks to have increased his speed. However, the biggest concern is still his size. Again, his contributions to the team will likely be on the scout team. However, he can contribute to the running game if the group should succumb to an injury bug as virulent as last year's.

Rashad was injured in the preseason last year and did not see the field. He stayed healthy throughout spring, and showed no signs of weakness due to his injury. Before his injury, he displayed great speed and field awareness, and looked to be making headway in the rotation. A strong summer will be needed to compete for the coveted fourth spot in the rotation.


The impact newcomer: A.J. Ellis (5-10, 175)

A.J. Ellis
photo by Scout.com
Prep highlights and stats: was one of the top athletes in the West…rated three-stars and one of the top 100 cornerbacks in the nation by Scout.com…he rushed for 1,527 yards and scored 26 touchdowns as a senior…led his team to an 8-1-1 record ... averaged 9.73 yards per carry and over 12 yards per reception…had 43 tackles and two interceptions on defense

Ellis is coming in with a bit of fanfare. He has been dubbed by Coach Pat Hill as a bigger, faster Clifton Smith. That is a tall order to follow through, considering Smith was the Bulldogs' MVP last season. His combination of size, speed and, most importantly, shiftiness will give fans reason to believe FS will not miss a step from losing Smith.

If Ellis grasps the offense, he can contribute immensely. He will allow FS to spread the field from sideline to sideline, and his speed allows the ‘Dogs to utilize the slot position for anything from carries to screens to post routes. Ellis is definitely someone to watch as he comes into camp. He is one of the many true freshmen that are expected to contribute right away. Most recruited him as a defensive back, but having the chance to play on offense tipped the ball in the Bulldogs' favor.


The recruit: Michael Harris (5-11, 195)
Prep highlights and stats: Rated three-stars and one of the top 100 running backs in the nation by Scout.com…he rushed for 999 yards in eight games as a senior with seven 100-yard games and 12 touchdowns…rushed for 1,450 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior…had offers from Utah, San Diego State, Arizona State, and Minnesota

Harris comes into the program specifically at running back. It is a daunting prospect, considering FS is so deep at that position to begin with. But that did not deter him from coming in to compete for playing time, and that was what endeared Coach Hill to Harris in the recruitment process. He runs in the same style as Miller. In all likelihood, Harris is a redshirt candidate. Having said that, many believed that it was in Mathews' best interest a year ago, and we all know what happened. In order to make an impact, Harris will have to beat out Rashad and Duffy for a spot on the depth chart.


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