Less than two weeks ago, the Colorado Buffaloes were so depleted at running back that they finished a game at Oregon State with only one scholarship player available.
This week, the Buffs might be fully stocked and have a hard time finding carries for everybody.
On Tuesday, senior Alex Fontenot, who has not played since Sept. 10 at Air Force, went through his final practice in a non-contact jersey. He could finally make his return Saturday when the Buffs (1-7, 1-4 Pac-12) host No. 8 Oregon (7-1, 5-0) at Folsom Field (1:30 p.m., ESPN).
“(Wednesday) should be his first day of contact,” interim head coach Mike Sanford said. “Most of that has been precautionary, as opposed to almost like us trying to push him along too quickly. … Today, he got scout team reps and then tomorrow the blue jersey comes off, so I’m excited to get Alex back.”
Fontenot, who started the first two games of the season, has been out with a chest injury. He ran for 84 yards on 20 carries before the injury.
Junior Deion Smith leads the Buffs with 354 yards. He missed the Oct. 22 game at Oregon State with an injury, but posted his first career 100-yard game (111 yards, one touchdown) in Saturday’s 42-34 loss to Arizona State.
Freshman Anthony Hankerson started at Oregon State, but was injured early in the game and hasn’t played since. He is third on the team with 140 yards and Sanford said Hankerson “looked like he was fully back today as well.”
Sophomore Jayle Stacks has stepped up with 76 yards in the last two games, and the Buffs also have walk-on Charlie Offerdahl (second on the team with 163 yards).
“You can actually see that we’re getting, I think, quality experience in Font,” Sanford said. “To me, he runs like a hammer. I think in the seven weeks since his injury, he’s also put on about, I think, nine pounds. So he looks good – and it’s been a good nine pounds.”
The difficulty now is finding carries for Fontenot and others behind Smith.
“Obviously the challenge is going to be that Deion is playing such good football right now,” Sanford said. “Getting Deion into a rhythm is incredibly important, because he does provide that that opportunity for an explosive play at anytime but so does Font. We’re going to work those guys in and still have a really healthy rotation running back.”
After several drops at receiver, senior Daniel Arias wasn’t in the rotation on offense against ASU. He was, however, back in the mix on special teams. Stellar in that role throughout his career, he was named the Buffs’ special teams player of the week.
“It was fun to be out there,” said Arias, whose speed is an asset as the gunner on punt team. “I really do enjoy just playing gunner. My mindset is, whenever I’m out, it’s either gonna be a tackle or a fair catch. I love doing that. I know I’m gonna win every time, so it’s just fun for me. I’m just running downfield and just trying to make a play.”
Arias has forced 26 fair catches in his career, which is one shy of the CU record (Ryan Iverson had 27 from 2010-13). Arias hasn’t had a chance to go for the record this year, but that opportunity is there again.
“Hopefully I can get this one this game, so I just have to just keep working,” he said. “Special teams is really important, so when I get my shot, I’m gonna make sure I go full speed and give it all I’ve got for special teams.”
Arias leads the Buffs with 19 catches and is second with 309 yards, but it’s unclear how much he’ll play on offense going forward. Sanford thinks Arias could potentially play in the NFL on special teams, however.
“There have been some scouts that have come through here and … they see a lot of value in him as a gunner and a holdup player on the punt return units,” Sanford said. “I think he really answered the bell (against ASU) and I think he’s gonna make himself some money with what he put on tape, really, as a gunner, and as a holdup guy on the perimeter.”
Punter Trent Carrizosa has seen his average drop in recent games, but some of that is by design. Low hang times were giving opponents opportunities at returns and CU ranks 127th nationally in allowing 225 punt return yards.
To fix that, Sanford said, “You can see we’re doing more of the drop punt mentality, but we’re getting better hangtime, we’re getting better ball placement.”
That change contributed to ASU having just 19 yards on five returns.
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