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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Running Backs: Group vows better ball protection in 2006

    Running back Xavier Smith dodges defenders in Arizonas Meet the Team scrimmage Aug. 19 at Arizona Stadium. The redshirt freshman will back up junior starter Chris Henry along with junior-college transfer Chris Jennings.
    Running back Xavier Smith dodges defenders in Arizona’s ‘Meet the Team’ scrimmage Aug. 19 at Arizona Stadium. The redshirt freshman will back up junior starter Chris Henry along with junior-college transfer Chris Jennings.

    Undoubtedly the most maligned group on the team, Arizona’s running backs are at least unafraid of the criticism.

    Aside from junior running back Chris Henry, Division I football experience is scarce among the group, as last year’s backs – Denver Broncos starter Mike Bell and his classmate Gilbert Harris – used up their eligibility.

    But that may be a good thing considering the inconsistent, fumble-prone past. The Wildcats rushed for 315 yards against UCLA and 212 against Oregon, yet managed a meager 13 yards in 24 carries against Purdue and 37 yards in 28 carries against California last season.

    Arizona fumbled 17 times, losing 12, but the running backs accounted for just six last year. Still, most came at the “”wrong damn time,”” according to running backs coach Kasey Dunn.

    “”I don’t care about none of that,”” Henry said of the criticism bellied on the backs. “”I’ll look a person right in the eye, and I guarantee they won’t say that to my face. It don’t really matter to me because I know what I can do, I know my ability and us as a whole, we know our ability.

    “”We’re gonna hold on to the ball, and we’re gonna run the ball.””

    That sentiment has wrung through the rest of the running back corps, which also features junior college transfer Chris

    Jennings, redshirt freshmen Xavier Smith and Terry Longbons and freshman Glyndon Bolasky. (Freshman Derke Robinson left the team during fall camp).

    “”Our protection with the ball is very excellent,”” Smith said. “”Last year that was our biggest (problem). We had a couple that cost us a couple of games, but this year, the starting three have held on to the ball.””

    If Henry, whose large and sculpted frame makes him a physical force, can’t corral the football, head coach Mike Stoops has enough confidence in Smith and Jennings to throw them into the fire, yet all indications point to the job being Henry’s to lose.

    “”He’s doing the right things right now,”” Dunn said. “”There’s no chinks in his armor. If there were, there’d be guys in there trying to get time, but he’s done a good job of holding on to his job.””

    Added Smith: “”You drop the ball, you’re not going to play.””

    Despite the strong competition at the position, there’s no fighting within the group. Henry has embraced the leadership role as the elder statesman in the backfield and the others have followed suit.

    “”The competition is the best motivator, in my eyes and in pretty much every good athlete’s eyes,”” Henry said. “”There’s nothing that’s going to make you get better than having someone right on your heels and knowing that they may be taking your job.””

    Jennings, meanwhile, has surprised

    everyone but himself by climbing to No. 3 on the depth chart.

    “”I like his maturity,”” Stoops said of Jennings. “”I think he’s got great physical attributes, and he’s very quick, very fast and very physical, and he has great hands. He’s handling things well. He’s picked up the assignments and picked up the offense.

    “”I’m very pleased with the way he’s played.””

    A transfer from Arizona Western College, the walk-on plans to make an improbable impact in his first season.

    “”I’m hungry to get to this level and get what they got, which is a scholarship and seeing action on the field,”” Jennings said. “”I’m not surprised because I’m out here to work and compete.””

    As in many offenses, the running game sets up the passing game, and sophomore quarterback Willie Tuitama’s ability to play-fake and also buy more time in the pocket.

    “”I think it’s critical to our success,”” said Stoops, who agreed that the running backs will be the X factor in the offense. “”In any offense you have to have an established running game, and we’ve struggled with that at times.””

    There is a gap between the first three running backs and the latter two at this point, but Stoops said “”it’s hard to tell in practices”” how well each back is running.

    “”We’ll probably concentrate on Chris (Henry) and (Chris) Jennings and Xavier (Smith), and then Bolasky and Longbons are fighting their way through,”” Stoops said. “”I like what we’re doing with the first three.””

    Last season the Wildcats rushed for almost 700 yards less than their opponents, often allowing defenses to sag and play the pass, thus straining the effectiveness of Tuitama. In order to prevent similar situations, Henry said the running backs have to create balance in the offense.

    “”In any offense you have to have balance, unless you just have some all-star, 7-foot wide receiver that runs a 4.2,”” Henry said. “”Nobody has that, so you need a running game to balance everything out. You got a good, hard running game, that’s going to make them put more people in the box and get more one-on-ones (for the receivers).””

    An experienced offensive line that returns four starters should also help the running game along.

    “”I think they (the O-line) are very improved,”” Smith said. “”There’s bigger holes, and you know where the hole is going to be so we don’t have to make as many cut backs.””

    Also blocking up front will be fullbacks Brandon Lopez, a sophomore, and freshman Earl Mitchell, whose offensive versatility will be exploited by Wildcat coaches.

    “”There’s nothing on the field that (Mitchell) can’t do, and he brings another factor to our offense and brings some punch and physicality and can still get out and stretch the field,”” Stoops said.

    No matter who the Wildcats put on the field this season, the running backs group will be playing with something to prove.

    “”We’re all working as a group, trying to get better collectively,”” Henry said, “”and we all got one common goal in the backfield: We have to establish the run game.””

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