BOZEMAN — Isaiah Ifanse pondered a moment. The Montana State running back was asked who has impressed him from his position group this spring.
Elijah Elliott. DeMareus Hosey. Jaharie Martin. Garrett Coon. Lane Sumner.
Ifanse smiled after he rattled off those names. Almost every player at his position has dazzled him in some way.
The Bobcats believe that many running backs excelling is a good thing. With Brent Vigen as its new head coach, MSU doesn’t expect to divert from its run-first style. This means the program will need to rely on its running backs — and that the Bobcats will want to have many they can turn to.
MSU running backs coach Jimmy Beal played for the Bobcats. He told his players that whatever they do represents every other back who has toted the ball at MSU. Elevating that position group is a clear-cut priority.
“I think Montana State running backs, we have to be a different breed of toughness,” Beal said. “I think I've seen that in younger guys.”
Vigen’s previous offenses at Wyoming and North Dakota State rarely relied on one sole running back. While he told local media he wouldn’t be utterly opposed to giving one back a majority of MSU’s carries, he added that’s not ideal.
“When you can have two or three guys over the long haul, you're going to be better served,” Vigen said. “They're going to take hits at that position and things are going to come up, so having depth at that position is critical.”
Now through a majority of spring practices, Beal said MSU’s backs are fairly healthy. He lauded strength and conditioning coach Sean Herrin for his emphasis on functional movement and ensuring the players fuel properly.
If the Bobcats deal with injuries, depth could become even more pivotal. After a 2018 campaign in which he broke MSU’s single-season freshman rushing record with 1,057 yards, Ifanse was hampered by an injury his sophomore year.
However, he ended up second on the team with 813 rushing yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, and six touchdowns in 2019. He set school playoff records for rushing yards in a game and career.
Even with Ifanse out, the Bobcats led the Big Sky and were eighth in the FCS with 258.1 rushing yards per game in 2019. They also set a single-season school record with 3,871 rushing yards as a team.
Eight Bobcats totaled at least 100 yards for the season with none eclipsing 1,000. MSU’s leading rusher, Logan Jones with 915 yards, is gone.
MSU can’t turn to the same weapons they once did. Travis Jonsen, a first-team all-Big Sky selection who totaled 526 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground in 2019, is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Troy Andersen, an all-American athlete who was third on the team with seven rushing touchdowns to go with 336 yards in 2019, will likely spend more time on defense.
But the Bobcats do return other leading contributors on the ground. Sumner, a sophomore, was fourth on the team with 424 rushing yards and five touchdowns while averaging 7 yards a carry the last season the Bobcats played. Junior Shane Perry ran for 226 yards and two touchdowns on 4.9 yards per attempt.
Then two redshirts, Hosey and Martin, each played in four games in 2019 and stood out in limited time. Beal, Vigen and Ifanse also both pointed out Elliott has flashed potential during spring practices as a true freshman.
“I think we have the potential for the depth that we’re looking for,” Vigen said. “It's in those beginning stages.”
Beal noted MSU’s run schemes are similar to previous seasons, which were often creative in how the Bobcats found open space for ball carriers. Within this system, Beal is looking for each of his running backs to make the most of their unique skill sets. Their varying styles could put pressure on opposing defenses.
Beal is hoping MSU’s running backs expand their repertoires, especially by learning the finer details of the pass game. Most of all, he’s seeking consistency from his position group this spring. He doesn’t want to see much falloff in production whenever Ifanse has to step off the field.
“It's great to know that I can just get subbed out,” Ifanse said, “and the guy that's coming in knows exactly what to do and is going to execute it to his fullest potential.”