Backfield competition keeps Aggie runners on their toes

They come from every angle, one play after the next. Banging their way through arm tackles and sidestepping diving defenders, they’re as relentless in full pads as they are in shells. The names on the back of their jerseys are both familiar and new, a mixture of proven veterans and eager underclassmen. They’re the running backs of the 2011 Utah State Aggies, and they’re one of the best kept secrets in college football. “We’ve got a lot of great players,” said Utah State running backs coach Ilaisa Tuaki, who joked that having several proven backs makes his job easy.”They make me look good and I haven’t done anything,” he added, laughing. “The real challenge is just to try to figure out different ways to get them all on the field and get the ball in their hands.”Working the ball to all of the Aggie backs has been a good challenge for Tuaki to have this spring. Not only does Utah State get back former second team all-WAC star Robert Turbin from an ACL injury which sidelined him in 2010, and Michael Smith, who only played in three games a year ago due to a severe turf toe injury, but the Aggies are bringing back a host of players who saw action during the team’s 4-8 campaign a season ago. Junior Kerwynn Williams, sophomore Robert Marshall and junior Joey DeMartino all saw action during the 2010 season for Utah State, and all have seen extensive repetitions this spring. Once more, the three backs – who filled in for the injured pair of backs in Turbin and Smith in 2010 – all have unique styles, ranging from Williams’ shifty bursts to Marshall’s inside toughness. “Turbin can do a little bit of everything,” Williams explained, running through a litany of each of the running backs’ strengths. “He can catch passes and everything, and he will lay the wood on whoever is coming to tackle him. I’m kind of a finesse guy, I don’t really run people over, but I run around them. Joey, he’s a good change-up running back who is good inside the tackles and is a good blocker and everything. Rob Marshall lead-blocks a lot and runs the ball hard, and I haven’t seen anyone come up and lay a good hit on him yet.”Marshall’s hard running style was apparent during Monday’s instrasquad scrimmage. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Texan punched the ball into the endzone twice for the offense, establishing a physical presence that Aggie offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin hopes to see more of come fall.”He’s got to be more physical,” Baldwin said of Marshall. “But he’s done some nice things to go along with that. I’m not going to let up on the throttle with him; I want him to produce more.”Producing more is the goal for all the Aggie backs, especially after the team finished 88th in the country in rushing last year. Compounding the importance of the run game will be Utah State’s quarterback situation. While Alex Hart, Adam Kennedy and Jeremy Higgins continue to battle for the starting job this spring, the USU coaches have stressed that the entire offense cannot fall on the quarterback’s shoulders, as it often did in 2010 with departed signal caller Diondre Borel. Not that extra production should be especially hard to come by. While Turbin has been limited in his spring participation, he remains upbeat about his status for the season, saying he’s back to 100 percent and ready to contribute come fall. Once more, he’s become a second coach on the field for USU, and improved the unit’s overall level of competition.”We all push each other,” Turbin said. “One of the things that has improved over the last couple of years is we’ve all been able to coach each other a lot better. We’re not only relying on the coaches to coach us.”Tuaki said having Turbin back on the field has been invaluable, especially with help in diversifying and improving the other running backs’ styles.”He brings a lot to the table just as far as leadership and ownership of the offense,” Tuaki said. “He knows what he’s doing. He helps coach the guys, especially this spring, because we’re holding him out of a lot of things to keep him healthy, I can use him as an extra set of eyes on the field.”Being held out of full contact drills has been frustrating for Turbin, who at 5-foot-10, 220-pounds has never been the kind of running back to shy from taking on defenders. Nevertheless, with head coach Gary Andersen being cautious after last spring’s injuries, Turbin is just grateful to be back out on the field. “You have to be smart at the same time, so I believe in whatever Coach Andersen believes in,” Turbin said. “He has my back and I have his at the same time, so that’s what we’re going to do. I’m happy to be out on the field catching passes and running on the field just in general. Whether we’re going full tackle or not, it’s fun to be out here.”Another Aggie back having fun this spring is Joe Hill, a redshirt freshman with explosive playmaking ability. “A flash,” as Kerwyeen Williams described him, Hill’s skills were on full display Monday when he took a 72-yard punt return back for a touchdown. Andersen called the Fullerton, Calif., native a “gamer,” and has said Hill’s combination of athleticism and toughness have earned him a spot in the lineup.”We have so many running backs that get nicked and dinged up and all he has done is keep on going,” Andersen said. “He is not the biggest guy in the world but he will power over you on the outside and he has had success every single day.”Somewhere between the speedy Williams and Hill and the tough-nosed running of Marshall and Turbin is Joey DeMartino. A junior college transfer who came on towards the end of 2010, he said he is now more comfortable in USU’s offense, and working to become the all-around back.”I feel like I’m more balanced, I’m working on trying to do it all,” DeMartino said. While their styles may differ, USU’s running backs all agree on one thing, competition has made them all better, and will keep them motivated heading out of spring camp and into summer conditioning.”It’s a motivational tactic,” said Marshall of the team’s depth at running back. “It’s more of a ‘look at those guys’ and you’re going to try to match what they do, because you already know they’re going to play at a high level. I just take what they do and tell myself on every play to just make something happen.”For his part, Baldwin remains upbeat about the running backs, but cautions putting too much into their spring performances. A veteran coordinator who has coached at both New Mexico and Michigan State, he knows that the running backs are just one side of the coin when talking about success on the ground, and warned that only solid offensive line play will allow the group’s depth to really take effect. “If the O-line produces than the backs are versatile and have talent,” Baldwin said. “But I’ve coached for 33 years and it will never change. I’ll be six feet under in my grave and it will never change, offensive and defensive lines. If you can win the offensive line, you’re going to run the football.”-USU-

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