STARKVILLE — Experience.
That’s what the Mississippi State football team has at the running back position after having to replace Josh Robinson last season. Robinson got many of the carries in 2014 because he was so dominate, but that made the Bulldogs lean more on a passing style offense with quarterback Dak Prescott in 2015.
Even so, the young running backs got experience playing in the Southeastern Conference. That’s something that is helping the running backs get ahead during spring drills.
“We didn’t lose anybody so I think it’s definitely coming by faster for everybody because everybody knows the offense,” rising senior Brandon Holloway said. “We don’t really have anybody new, everybody’s been doing this. That makes it a lot easier for everybody.”
Along with Holloway, MSU returns four lettermen at running back with rising senior Ashton Shumpert and rising sophomores Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee. The Bulldogs didn’t have a featured back and they split carries during the season. Holloway led the running backs with 428 yards but didn’t score a touchdown. Shumpert rushed for 228 yards and one touchdown, West Point native Williams rushed for 206 yards a led the running backs with three touchdowns and Lee rushed for 137 yards.
Holloway and Shumpert have played in a combined 73 games in their careers.
It was tough at times last season for Williams and Lee as they were learning the offense and learning how to play at the Division I level after being redshirted. But Williams feels comfortable now.
“I know more now because I’m in the film room more,” Williams said. “I’m studying a lot so when I get on the field it’s better for me.”
Redshirt freshmen Nick Gibson and Alec Murphy are also in the mix and the four younger running backs are at different stages in their understanding of the offense and maturity levels, but coach Dan Mullen wants to see consistency from them.
“We’ve got four young guys to me that I really want to see grasp the offense, take some giant steps forward being prepared to play,” Mullen said. “And then just really great consistent playmaking performances from the older guys.”
Gibson was a four-star out of Pinson Valley (Alabama) High School, while Gibson was a three-star and arguably the best running back prospect in the state of Missouri coming out of Nixa High School in 2014.
But with four running backs ahead of them, Gibson and Murphy were redshirted last season. They went through practices last fall, but weren’t preparing to play and were getting reps with the scout team. Running backs coach Greg Knox wants the two older backs to get the first couple of reps, but said he wants the younger players to get more reps.
Knox said he wants to see great mind-sets from Gibson and Murphy.
“They’ve got to be ready to go,” Knox said. “They know what they’re up against, so they’re working hard to make sure that they get everything done correctly. I talk to them every day about knowledge. Knowledge is power, the smarter you are, the better player you’ll be.”
Although MSU has practiced four times this spring, Holloway is impressed with how far Gibson and Murphy have come.
“They’re picking up the offense a lot faster than most people when they come in,” Holloway said. “Being at running back, I feel like that’s one of the hardest positions to really get the offense down, so I think they’re doing pretty good at it.”
With no running back stepping up to be “the guy,” Prescott led the team in rushing with 588 yards and 10 touchdowns. Holloway said they are not worrying about one of them separating from the group and taking over the position full-time.
Rather, the six running backs all bring something different to the position, whether it’s speed, being a bruiser or being a good option in the passing game. Knox likes that type of versatility at the position.
“All of them except for Holloway, they’ve got that explosive power size, where Holloway is going to beat you with his speed and quickness, they can beat you with that power,” Knox said.
Shumpert leads the running backs with 692 career yards, but Holloway has been impressive in both running and catching the ball. He was one of only three FBS players last season with at least 400 rushing yards, 300 receiving yards and 500 kick return yards, joining Heisman Trophy finalist Chris McCaffrey of Stanford and San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin.
Holloway looks comfortable and Knox said he is at the stage where he doesn’t have to think, he just reacts. But Holloway is his biggest critic and focuses on the negatives more.
“Every day is a bad day for me,” Holloway said. “I see a lot of stuff I can improve on every day. I think as long as we keep doing that and everybody thinks that, we’ll be a good team in the end.”
The experience is bound to pay off this fall for the Bulldog running backs, but Holloway is seeing that right now, especially when they meet as a unit.
“It’s easy, it breezes by,” Holloway said. “Everybody knows their stuff. You’re really just going over things to fix your own little keys.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Ben Wait on Twitter @bcwait
Ben Wait reports on Mississippi State University sports for The Dispatch.