Running backs Travon Van and Joey Counts were back in shoulder pads for the Montana Griz on Thursday after sitting out for a while with injuries.
Their availability is crucial at a position where UM is long on potential and short on proven success. Aside from junior starter Jordan Canada, who has 1,166 career rushing yards, only Counts has carried the ball as a Griz, albeit 14 times as a freshman last year.
“Tra has been hobbling around here for about a week,” Montana coach Mick Delaney noted after his team worked out inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. “Nothing is real serious at this point, but it was kind of a (medial collateral) sprain, strain-type thing. It looks like he’s back feeling pretty darn good.
“Joey has had a little bit of problems with the Achilles’ tendon, just sore from a lot of work and running. But to see both of them out there today helps everybody.”
The running back position has evolved significantly over the past few decades on the college and pro levels. Workhorse backs are fewer and farther between.
“It depends on the individual, obviously,” Delaney said. “When Chase (Reynolds) was here he got his 30 or 35 carries a game. It wore on him, too. As tough as he was and as good of a player as he was, he wore down at the end of the year a little bit.
“It’s nice if you can play two for sure and maybe three will get some carries this year. Then you’re fresh in the fourth quarter. You’re hopefully going to be fresh from week to week.”
Van is the X factor on a list of four contenders that includes Canada, Counts and freshman John Nguyen, brother of ex-Grizzly Peter Nguyen. Van piled up 541 yards on 143 carries for FBS Marshall in 2011 before he was slowed by injuries last season.
The junior from San Diego has shown flashes of brilliance in practice and scrimmage situations. But it remains to be seen whether any of Montana’s running backs can be consistent over the course of an entire season.
“You’ve got to produce,” Delaney said. “Obviously the talent is there.
“Now we’ll have to see in the next week kind of what happens. What you’ve done in the past doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a running back or a receiver or an O-lineman, it only matters are you ready to be productive when the lights go on?”
With Van missing a week of practice and Counts out for a couple days, Nguyen has had a lot of carries with the first team offense this week. He has taken advantage of his opportunity.
“He has really good balance,” said Delaney, who coached Montana’s running backs from 2008 to 2011. “I think he has a really good feel for what we’re doing.
“They run a similar offense, or part of it, at Bellevue (Nguyen’s high school near Seattle). So he’s a good freshman running back. We really feel we need four guys ready to play at all times at that position because it’s one of those if you do get an injury or two you can’t go get somebody else and put them in there. It has to be somebody who has worked and trained and is prepared to run plays, pass block – do the stuff you have to do.”
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With nine days remaining before Montana’s home opener against Appalachian State, UM assistant coach Aric Williams is excited about the progress of his cornerbacks.
Seniors Anthony Goodwin and Sean Murray have emerged as the probable starters at corner while senior Bo Tully and junior Matt Hermanson will hold down the safety positions.
“It’s the same group we had last year, we’re just way more experienced,” Williams noted. “That in conjunction with us getting Coach (Jake) Cookus to coach the safeties, it’s really given us more confidence back there.
“We’ve switched up a couple technique things and they’ve taken it and improved each practice. We’re going to be a totally different secondary back there.”
Montana also has some depth in its defensive backfield. Senior Steven Rominger has seen time at safety, with sophomore Justin Whitted showing in preseason workouts that he’s also capable. Junior Joshua Dennard and sophomore Nate Harris are experienced backups at corner.
“Even if I have to go into the bullpen I think I’ve got four solid guys and maybe even five,” Williams said of the corner position. “But definitely four I feel confident in that can play. I’ll play the top two guys, but sometimes we’ll put four out there.”
NOTES: Appalachian State announced Thursday sophomore WR Sean Price has been suspended indefinitely after his arrest on a charge of being intoxicated and disruptive. In 10 games last season, Price caught 81 passes for 1,196 yards – single-season FCS records for a freshman ... In 7-on-7 Griz action Thursday, Harris picked off a deep pass from Jordan Johnson intended for Sean Haynes ... Cam Warren, who is emerging as a strong possession receiver, had several good-hands catches from Johnson on short routes ... Sophomore wideout Kevin Berland made a nice catch in a crowd ... Senior center Kjelby Oiland continues to sit out with a hamstring injury.