Monday, August 31, 2009


Returning lettermen: 5

Incoming: 2
Lost: 1 (Kyle Duffy)

Even last season this group of Fresno State running backs was thought of as possibly the best in school history. Now, all the key ones are back for another year, with more depth and experience. The only thing stopping this unit from being a perfect 10 is the injuries that have struck the past two years. Still, junior Ryan Mathews (5-11, 220), Lonyae Miller (5-11, 220) and Anthony Harding (6-0, 220) are the best Bulldogs trio since Ron Rivers, Anthony Daigle and Lorenzo Neal in the early 1992.

Though the three will all get significant touches in a running back by committee approach, Mathews is the most physically gifted, and possibly the best the school has ever had at the position – if he can stay healthy. He was knocked off track last season by a freak injury late in the game at UCLA that caused nerve damage in his foot. Still, he finished the season with 606 yards (5.4 per carry) and six touchdowns in eight games. Mathews also missed two games with injury as a true freshman in 2007, but wrapped up the year with 866 yards (6 per carry) and 14 touchdowns. With 20 career rushing scores, Mathews is just five touchdowns from breaking into the school’s top 10 career list. In an attempt to combat injury, he hit the weight room hard this offseason, boosting his “body armor” as Pat Hill has referred to it. And he remains one of the fastest, quickest players on the team, with hands down the most vicious stiff arm. Even in a conference as loaded at running back as the WAC, Mathews is far and away the best if he plays a full season. If there’s any knock at all on Mathews ability, it’s his pass blocking skills, something he showed inconsistency with last season.

He should be able to stay fresh, with the help the Bulldogs will get from Miller and Harding. Miller led WAC running backs with 6.8 yards per carry in 2008, and totaled 812 yards and seven touchdowns, including a 90-yarder against Nevada (two 80-plus-yard runs on the year). His breakaway speed is special, as is his lightning-fast burst out of the backfield – rivaled only by Mathews. Miller, too, needs to improve his pass blocking, but even more so his hanging on to the football. With 1,706 career rushing yards and 16 scores, Miller has put together one of the best backfield resumes this decade, and can jump into the top five all-time if he duplicates last season’s numbers.

Even with all the talent of Mathews and Miller, the most dependable guy might be Harding. The workhorse of the group, Harding is the one back who’s never missed a game with injury. And he led the Bulldogs with 822 yards last season (5.6 per carry) and six touchdowns. While Mathews and Miller excel at scooting to the sideline and upfield, Harding is a north-south runner who churns out yards the hard way. He’s also the best blocking back of the group and will see plenty of playing time in shotgun formations.

After the super trifecta, Jamaal Rashad (5-11, 205) offers yet another dose of danger for opponents. Rashad, a former walk-on out of junior college, added 153 yards last season, including a performance at San Jose State when Mathews and Miller were out with injuries that showed he could play a starring role for most other WAC teams. Opportunities for carries might be scarce this year, but Rashad is capable if called upon. He’s also listed second on the depth chart at fullback to open the season.

Listed fourth at tailback is true freshman Robbie Rouse (5-7, 185). It hasn’t been uncommon the past couple years to hear people comparing young backs to former standout Clifton Smith, but Rouse truly fits that comparison. He’s shorter than Smith – even his listed height of 5-7 is generous – but he’s got a similarly stocky build and thrives on being the smallest guy on the field. And his shifty running style is eerily similar, though Rouse actually might have more breakaway speed. He did such a magnificent job of turning heads from Day 1 of fall camp that he’s likely to play right away, despite a scarcity of carries. But he can be used in special teams roles, and will be deadly in option formations. Rouse scored a touchdown in the first fall scrimmage, and was even seen blocking a kick in practice.

The depth doesn’t stop there. A pair of redshirt freshmen wait in the wings with Miller, Harding and Rashad set to graduate after this year. Michael Harris (5-11, 200) accounted for half of the offense’s touchdowns in the two fall scrimmages, including a 40-plus-yard scamper in the first one. If he continues to bulk up, he can be a feature-type back by next season – perfect timing. A.J. Ellis (5-11, 180) is a change-of-pace guy whose athleticism and quickness can cause fits. He impressed as early as last season’s fall camp, but looks to be a tad behind Harris right now. Neither is likely to be relied on to produce this year, but will be thrust into key roles next season.

Starting at fullback is Reynard Camp (5-11, 270), a bowling ball of a blocker who has improved each season since joining the program as a walk-on. He was visibly quicker on his feet in fall camp, and it provided for plenty of violent collisions as he opened holes for the tailbacks. The Bulldogs brought in a new walk-on to mold for the future in freshman Dylan Cruz (5-11, 225), who has a prototypical build for the position. Cruz impressed from the get-go and hopes are high he’ll develop into the next in a long line of pummel-happy fullbacks at Fresno State.

Rating: 9 of 10

***Anthony Harding photo courtesy of Juan Villa/The Collegian

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