Injuries were only one factor that pressed Montana head coach Bob Stitt into activating true freshman running back Jeremy Calhoun last season. Outside of veteran starter John Nguyen, the coach just couldn't trust anyone else's pass blocking ability.
The presence of fellow reserve Treshawn Favors – and at times Calhoun, too – sometimes tipped defenses of a run play because unless the backs were heading out in quick pass patterns, they added little to the air attack in terms of protection for the quarterback.
That won't be the case in 2016.
The Grizzlies are cultivating a three-headed monster in the backfield this spring with Calhoun and Favors closing the gap between themselves and Nguyen in their all-around game and technique. The latter duo has spent the offseason toiling to become proficient pass blockers, a resolve that should pay off in extra snaps and carries for the upcoming season.
"I hope so," Stitt said of the possibility of an even three-back rotation. "John is a very good player, but we would like to be three deep, where you feel like anybody you put out there you're gonna be in good shape."
In an offensive system like Stitt's, where a good outing means between 90 and 100 offensive plays run, a dominant back couldn't stay that way for long. His body won't hold up, Stitt said.
Favors, a junior, has come the farthest in his protection, Stitt said, and his extended reps have already produced some highlights. Favors rushed for 67 yards on just seven carries in last Saturday's scrimmage, the balanced workload allowing the senior Nguyen to do the same with seven totes for 70 yards.
"We couldn't get him on the field because he wasn't doing a great job in pass protection," Stitt said of Favors in 2015 when he had just 45 carries for 104 yards. "Now he is. He's a very strong runner and he gets in the open field. He's got some elusiveness, but he's also got some power."
Power certainly helps in pass blocking, but technique rules. Just ask Calhoun, who got his first carry last season at UC Davis on Oct. 3 and appeared in every game from there on out.
"When I first got here, I didn't like (to) pass-block at all honestly," said Calhoun, who first entered the active roster because of injuries to bowling-ball back Joey Counts and the now-former Griz RB Lorenzo Logwood.
"You've got to go against guys twice your size. (Running backs coach Justin Green) really showed me a lot of technique, how I can take a lot of the pain off myself if I can just deliver the blow to whoever I'm blocking."
Nguyen got the start in all 13 games for the Griz last year, rushing for 855 yards and three touchdowns. He is also the team's leading returning receiver in terms of catches, nabbing 31 for another 159 yards.
Calhoun accounted for just 291 yards but powered his way into the end zone for nine rushing touchdowns. That's the most for a Griz true freshman – RB Jordan Canada had nine as a redshirt frosh in 2009 – in at least the past 40 years.
Many of those TDs capped drives that saw Nguyen take the bulk of the snaps between the 20-yard lines. It happened again Saturday when Calhoun scored from a yard out on his first carry of a possession in which Nguyen rushed five times for 30 yards.
"It's something I got used to," Nguyen said with a subtle grin. "We're a team. It's not all about the touchdowns, whoever gets the most yards. We're a team and I respect Jeremy for working hard, playing as a true freshman especially."
But Calhoun, who scored all but two of his nine TDs from 5 yards or closer, wants to be known as more than just a goal-line guy in his sophomore season.
"Really my main focus this spring is showing I'm not just a red-zone threat," he said. "I can be the home-run threat as well. Short yardage, open-field play – not just red zone."
The Montana backfield could further diversify this fall with the return of Counts, a senior and the Grizzlies' most physical runner. He's sitting out contact drills this spring after offseason shoulder surgery.
It's the latest incident in a career marred by repetitive injuries. He played in just six games last fall with 156 yards because of ankle issues. That followed an absence the length of the 2014 season – a redshirt year – after requiring foot surgery for another injury sustained late in the 2013 campaign.
Counts has played in just 19 games dating back to 2012, though Griz fans will likely remember his game-winning touchdown to beat North Dakota State in last year's season opener for years to come.