August 28, 2010

"Countdown To Kickoff": The Running Backs

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of an eight-part series produced by the FSU Athletics Communications Office looking at different position groups as the Bulldogs prepare for their 2010 season opener on Friday, Sept. 3, at Hillsdale.

Big Rapids, Mich. - Yards were tough to come by for the Ferris State University offensive backfield a season ago.

With injuries hampering parts of the Bulldogs' offensive unit along with several changes in formations and personnel over the course of the campaign, the Bulldogs' final 2009 statistical totals reveal FSU managed only 681 total yards on the ground or an average of 2.0 yards per carry.

Needless to say, an effective running game is sure to be a point of emphasis this fall.

While the squad's leading rusher D.J. Freeman was not able to return this season after a serious injury a year ago, new offensive coordinator Chris Boden should still have several speedy and talented weapons at his disposal.

Junior Tyler Thomas (Jackson) and sophomore Skyler Stoker (Jackson/Grass Lake) entered camp expected to battle for the starting tailback duties following successful first seasons in the program last fall. 

Thomas, who transferred from NCAA Division I Eastern Michigan prior to camp last year, was the Bulldogs' second-leading rusher a year ago with 233 yards (5.0 ypc.) and displayed the ability to reach the endzone with four touchdown carries.

"Tyler has the ability to have an impact year and could be an all-league caliber player if healthy," Boden said.  "His potential is extremely good and he's a great playmaker.

"He's explosive and fast and knows how to find the hole and run, which will be great for our offense," he added.

Stoker, meanwhile, opened the 2009 season and his true freshman campaign at the slot receiver position before shifting to tailback midway thru the season when the Bulldogs converted to a Power I formation on offense.  He finished the season with 143 yards on 64 carries and also caught seven passes for 94 yards (13.4 ypc.)

The 5-11 Stoker should have no problems adjusting to a more permanent role in the backfield this season.  He ran for 2,255 yards and 42 touchdowns as a prep senior at Grass Lake High School in 2008 and was the Associated Press Division 7-8 State offensive Player of the Year.  An added year of experience at the collegiate level should only aid his effort to be a featured ball carrier in Boden's offensive system.

"Skyler had a great spring and has the potential to be an excellent back," said Boden. "He's an instinctive runner with a nose for the hole and also runs good routes out of the backfield."

Over the past few seasons, the Bulldogs hadn't typically utilized a true fullback in the old offensive system, which perhaps made last year's mid-season adjustment to the Power I more difficult.  That should change this fall with the two-back look Boden will often employ.

Junior Aaron Olman (Grandville), who like Stoker also played in the slot for most of last year, will be one of the frontrunners to grab the other starting nod.  Like Stoker, there's a good chance he'll be used as both a runner and receiver in addition to a blocker in the new system. 

Olman played in all 11 games last fall and made seven starts while catching 11 passes for 193 yards, highlighted by a 74-yard pass reception against nationally number-one ranked Grand Valley State.

"Aaron is competing for a key position and is a hard-working kid who has displayed improved blocking skills," Boden said.  "He's an extremely start and heady player who also has great potential."

Senior Leon Curry (Detroit/Warren Fitzgerald) was one of the spring surprises after a move from linebacker to fullback.  The brother of former Bulldog back Leonard Curry, he should provide a physical presence and has the tools to be a contributor at the position, according to Boden. 

Curry earned the team's Offensive Newcomer Award for his efforts in spring drills and scored a touchdown in the annual Crimson & Gold Spring Game out of the backfield. Besides being a powerful blocker, he gives the Bulldogs a different dimenson and a varied look at 245 pounds when carrying the football.

"He's a big, strong and physical player who should compete for playing time," said Boden. "Leon has the ability to open some big plays and is coming off a strong spring performance."

Another returnee, sophomore Dwayne Williams (Saginaw/Heritage), should also challenge for opportunites in the backfield.  A versatile player with good hands, Boden noted Williams has big-play ability and is also coming off a solid spring.  He appeared in eight games last fall and was a GLIAC All-Academic Team honoree.

Senior David Johnson (Detroit/Redford) sat out the spring and could perhaps find a role either out of the backfield or in the slot, if healthy.

Several newcomers have also displayed the ability this fall to be effective runners in certain situations, which should help solidfy the Bulldogs' depth in the backfield this fall.

Transfer Elijah Johnson (Miami, Fla./Booker T. Washington) from Middle Tennessee State headlines the group with a number of incoming freshman potentially contributing down the line.

Additionally, the offensive ground game no doubt should also be aided by the return of junior Tom Schneider (Jerome/Addison) to the quarterback position.  He led the Bulldogs with 519 rushing yards and six TD's as the starting signal caller two years ago and provides the added ability to make plays with his feet if needed.

Overall, if anything, the extra year of seasoning in a young and talented backfield should give the Bulldogs the ability to be much more productive on the ground this campaign, especially if head coach Jeff Pierce's squad is able to establish itself up front at the line of scrimmage.

Next Installment:  The "Countdown To Kickoff" series will resume on Sunday (Aug. 29) with a look at the receivers.

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