Once a question mark for Colorado, Buffs proving to be deep at tailback

Freshman running back Deion Smith grasps the ball as his teammates help him up during the spring game. April 27, 2019 (Casey Paul/CU Independent)

Undoubtedly one of the biggest questions marks facing first-year head coach Mel Tucker and the 2019 Colorado Buffaloes was the gaping hole that’s been left at the tailback position. Really, for the first time since the early days of the Phillip Lindsay era in 2015, the Buffs don’t have a legitimate No. 1 guy.

However, after watching the annual Black & Gold Game on Saturday — the Buffs’ annual spring scrimmage at Folsom Field — it appears Tucker and Co., the Buffaloes’ offense at large and its fans can quash any qualms or lowered expectations they once had about Colorado’s tailbacks.

In fact, the Buffs look loaded at that position.

The spring scrimmage was an opportunity for the coaching staff to review all of its options in a game setting, rotating in just about every player on the roster, tailbacks included. By all accounts, the once-questionable depth of the Buffaloes’ running backs doesn’t appear to be much of an issue anymore.

“I think it’s good, I think it’s solid — I do,” first-year offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “With [Alex] Fontenot, [Jarek] Broussard and Deion [Smith] and [Jaren] Mangham and Joe [Davis], I think it’s a good group and they’re kind of feeding off each other … I think they’re doing a great job.”

In recent history, the Buffaloes football program has been pretty set with its running backs. In 2015, Phillip Lindsay ran onto the scene at CU and proved to be Colorado’s No. 1 guy, holding that claim until he graduated from the program following the 2017 season. This past year, the Buffs recruited the help of former Virginia Tech graduate transfer Travon McMillian, who followed in Lindsay’s footsteps and rushed for over 1,000 yards, giving Colorado three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus yard rushers.

While CU has been set for the past few years and has had a legitimate lead tailback to bear the brunt of the carries, there hasn’t been any depth or a clear No. 2 guy to replace either Lindsay or McMillian. For the past three seasons, it’s really been a one-horse race at the tailback position.

With the upcoming graduation of McMillian, who has recently signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent, it’s time for a new lead back to receive the torch being passed down. Who reaches their hand out first to grab that torch? Now that remains to be seen.

Running backs coach Darian Hagan says the competition for the No. 1 role is still very much up for grabs, and he and the rest of the coaching staff are keeping their cards close to their chest on who emerges as the potential starter for this 2019 Buffaloes offense.

“Not yet, everything is still wide open,” said Hagan of whether he’s picked his top tailback. “Everybody’s young, nobody’s played [in a game yet]. The best guy is going to play.”

Not making it any easier on his and the other coaches’ decision is the fact that the Buffs had what looked like a few possible starters emerge during the Black & Gold Game last weekend.

Team Black, led by the first-team offense, held a more balanced running attack during the spring scrimmage, with each of its three tailbacks (Davis, Broussard and Fontenot) toting the ball nine times each. Davis, a true freshman and early enrollee, led the charge with 59 yards on his nine carries. Then, it was Fontenot and Broussard with 34 and 26 yards, respectively.

It’s anyone’s guess as to who might grab the starting gig. While the coaches have been wary to reveal their top guy, there have been a few indications as to which Buffs tailback might be the starter. Fontenot, a sophomore, is listed as the No. 1 tailback on the spring depth chart, which was handed out to the media ahead of the most recent spring scrimmage at Folsom Field.

Another good indication is that Fontenot has the most cumulative carries through all three of CU’s spring scrimmages, the first two of which were not open to the public, unlike the one at Folsom. Fontenot owned a team-high total of 28 carries for the Buffs offense during its three spring scrimmages.

Also of note is Deion Smith, a redshirt freshman, who led Team Gold and the entire tailback unit with 15 total carries at the public scrimmage.

Interestingly enough, following Fontenot for the second-most cumulative carries during the spring is Jaren Mangham, another true freshman and early enrollee. Mangham was also the most impressive during the spring showcase at Folsom Field this past weekend. While Mangham suited up for Team Gold, the second-team offense, he paced the entire field with 149 yards on 12 rushes, adding three touchdowns along the way.

Just a few months ago, Mangham was still in high school. After committing to Colorado, the Michigan product and four-star recruit enrolled at CU early to partake in the spring practices. At 6 feet 2 and 215 pounds, Mangham is a force to be reckoned with on the field.

“The guy has a lot, a lot of potential,” Hagan said. “He just needs to continue to work hard and that light switch will turn on [for him]. Right now, he’s a freshman so he’s not consistent all the time, but [at the Spring Game] he was … he did a really, really good job.”

Unfortunately for media members, who are all chomping at the bit to talk to Mangham, they can’t due to his early enrollee status and the rules that protect them. But in talking with those around the freshman tailback, they’ve all been impressed with Mangham.

While inexperience seems to be the word to describe this season’s tailback group, the most recent spring scrimmage served as a microcosm and a primer to what this group can be capable of.

“Not a whole lot of experience but a lot of depth,” senior quarterback Steven Montez said. “Jaren Mangham looked really good today; Joe [Davis] was running the ball tough; Deion was running it well; Alex Fontenot is fast and shifty; we got J-Brew [Jarek Broussard] out there, who looks really, really good, really fast, really shifty.”

With the lack of experience comes consistency issues, which is a cornerstone and an absolute must for any successful athlete. It’s something Hagan mentioned a few times while talking about his tailbacks.

“All of them have done some really good things, just all of them are not being consistent,” Hagan said. “Alex Fontenot, he’s probably been the most consistent. Today, Mangham stood out. But I’ve been impressed by all of them.”

There is a strong indication that Fontenot is the guy who the Buffs will name their starter come the start of fall camp. Who knows, though? Mangham or any of the aforementioned tailbacks could emerge as the top guy, if not this season then the next.

What Colorado’s rushing attack lacks in experience, they make up for in raw talent. If the youth in CU’s backfield can clean up some consistency issues that were marked during the spring season, the Buffs just might have a surplus of talent at tailback, a position once thought to have been a weakness.

Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Scott MacDonald at scma0899@colorado.edu and follow him on Twitter @0ffScottFree.

Scott MacDonald

SCOTT MACDONALD IS THE ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR FOR THE CU INDEPENDENT. ORIGINALLY HAILING FROM MELBOURNE, FLORIDA, AT THE AGE OF FIVE, SCOTT AND HIS FAMILY MOVED TO COLORADO (BEFORE IT WAS COOL). IT WAS HERE IN COLORADO THAT SCOTT GREW INTO HIS OBSESSION FOR SPORTS, AND HE'S NOW EXCITED TO BE ABLE TO SCRIBE THAT PASSION THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF THE CUI. SCOTT IS MAJORING IN COMMUNICATION WITH A MINOR IN BUSINESS. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @SCOTTTOPICS.

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