Colorado’s lead dog in the backfield ran off to another school this offseason, but Darian Hagan still has a group of dogs lining up to eat.
“I think the approach that we’ll take is to feed them and feed them all,” Hagan, the Buffaloes’ running backs’ coach, said Wednesday. “All of them gotta eat, like the kids say. If they’re all consistent, they’ll all eat.”
Even without Jarek Broussard, who transferred to Michigan State after leading the Buffs in rushing the past two years, Hagan is confident in the group he has going into this season.
Senior Alex Fontenot and junior Deion Smith lead the pack, but sophomore Jayle Stacks, a pair of talented true freshmen and some gritty walk-ons have Hagan pleased as the Buffs prepare for the Sept. 2 opener against TCU.
“They’re looking good,” Hagan said. “I love the group that I have. They come with attention to detail every day. You don’t have to prod them and push them along. They understand when the whistle blows that they go 100%. It starts with the drills; it actually starts with our walkthroughs and then it goes to the drills and then into the practice where you got your team (periods) and your 7-on-7s. I love my group. The competition is healthy. They feed off each other and they’re just a joy to be around.”
That is, in part, because of Broussard’s departure. Losing the 2020 Pac-12 offensive player of the year has left a void in the backfield, in terms of production, but has created a giant chip on the collective shoulder of the group.
“I see a lot of hunger,” Hagan said. “The thing that I like dangling over their heads every day is, ‘No one outside of this room thinks you can do anything, but as long as the people inside this room believe in you, that’s all that matters. Go out every day and shock the world.’”
The one player in the backfield with proven success is Fontenot, a sixth-year senior. He led the Buffs in rushing in 2019 but missed the 2020 season with a hip injury. He then played a backup role to Broussard last year.
Hagan said if Fontenot stays healthy, “The sky’s the limit for him because he is a top back; one of the top, I think, in the country when given an opportunity, health-wise.”
Fontenot rushed for 326 yards a year ago, while Smith, a fifth-year junior, added 192 yards as the No. 3 back.
Like Fontenot, Smith is a veteran who has had his share of adversity – he also missed the 2020 season with an injury – and could have elected to hit the transfer portal last winter. Instead, he chose to stay at CU.
“It says a lot about Deion for the simple fact that, along the way, some guys passed him up and he never pouted,” Hagan said. “All he did was go to work. When other people were pouting about touches and things like that, he never pouted, never said anything about, ‘I need the ball.’ He’s team-first and that’s why he’s here and we’re excited like heck to have him.”
Stacks, now in his third-year, is champing at the bit, as well and in better shape than he’s been in previous years. Walk-on Charlie Offerdahl continues to impress in practices, as well.
The Buffs also boast a talented freshman duo of Victor Venn and Anthony Hankerson.
“Victor is a change of pace guy,” Hagan said of the 5-foot-10, 175-pound speedster. “He’s a home run hitter.”
Hagan added that the 5-foot-7, 190-pound Hankerson reminds him of one of the superstar teammates he played with at CU from 1988-90: Eric Bieniemy, the Buffs’ all-time leading rusher.
“I’m putting a lot on him and I’m raising the bar,” Hagan said of the comparison. “Same stature, same physicality; they talk alike. They’re both alpha dogs and they’re hungry. They’re smart and they’re not going to be denied because of their stature. When he gets the opportunity, you guys are gonna see something special.”
How much of an opportunity Venn or Hankerson gets this season remains to be seen. But, the opportunity to shine is there for the entire group and Hagan is eager to see what they do.
“We can’t wait … to turn them loose on Sept. 2,” he said.