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Bulldog Bytes Spring Preview: The Running Back Room

How can a stacked rotation improve in 2021?

NCAA Football: Fresno State at UNLV Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

After a 2020 season definitely filled with ups and downs at the running back position, how will the Bulldogs improve in 2021, and how will they find the touches for an extremely stacked rotation? Let’s take a look back, as well as a look forward.

The star of 2020 was still Ronnie Rivers, the one constant over the last 4 years of Bulldog football. He was the true MVP of the first half of 2020, allowing Jake Haener and the WR group the time to get comfortable as he operated as both a safety valve, and the ability to grind out yards and points when the team needed him most. He moved into a tie for career touchdowns at Fresno State in the Nevada game, then unfortunately went down with a lower leg injury on a long run called back for a penalty, and played extremely sparingly in the season-ending loss to New Mexico. After an off-season where most fans expected him to depart for the NFL, Rivers shocked the Bulldog faithful by announcing he’d return for one more year, utilizing the extra eligibility granted by the COVID pandemic. This instantly places him at the head of the running back rotation, and should cement his position in the Fresno State record books, and could place him at the top of the MW running backs for 2021. He always brought a shifty but bruising quality to his running, and the ability to catch the ball on swing passes as another option for Jake Haener. It remains to be seen how many records he can break at Fresno State, but he should break the touchdown record as well as the rushing touchdown record.

Rivers’ main tandem over the last 3 years has been Jordan Mims, even though he was not used as much in 2020 coming off an injury in the 2019 season. His only touchdown came in the last game of the year on an 85 yard run, which accounted for more than half of his entire season’s production. While a lot of that came down to Ronnie taking the vast majority of carriers, a lot of it was that the offensive line was not able to get a consistent push for a strong running game, and the glut of wide receivers that kept options for Mims as a passing back down. After seeing how good he could be in 2017 and 2018, Bulldog fans are looking forward to him getting back to success in 2021, although he should also be eligible for 2022 and 2023 if he chooses to continue here.

Now we come to a question mark, and more due to the mysterious ways that the NCAA works in. Jordan Wilmore made huge news by announcing his transfer to Fresno State from Utah. The former 4* recruit didn’t find traction in SLC in his two seasons there, but he definitely comes in highly touted. His size puts him just in line with Ronnie Rivers, and the Bulldog faithful are hoping that he is a continuation of that game into the future. His film, and the little bits that we got to see of him at Utah showed flashes of brilliance, and a true bruising, between the tackles sort of back that Fresno State hasn’t really had since Marteze Waller graduated. The NCAA is looking at a one-time transfer rule this off-season, but Wilmore’s eligibility will be a bit up in the air probably until the summer, but as a sophomore, he should be very important to Fresno State in the next 2-3 years.

The last returning back with experience will be Jevon Bigelow. The former Wyoming Cowboy returned to the Valley in 2019 and sat out that year due to transfer rules. Like Mims, he didn’t have a ton of opportunities to shine in 2020, serving more often as a lead blocker or a decoy on the field. Bigelow reports at 6’2” and 220lbs, which definitely makes him the biggest back in the room by a good margin, which explains why he was used as the blocking back when needed. He really seems to fit more into the mold of the “push the pile” sort of back that you’d need for a 3rd and 1 situation, although he does still maintain the speed needed to burst through a gap in the line for a big gain. I think if the O-Line is improved, we see more of Bigelow in 2021, especially if he can be used to catch passes or operate on sweep plays.

For the young guys in the room, Malik Sherrod was with the team in 2020, but did redshirt for his first season in Fresno. He projects much more as a speed back than a strong between the tackles back, which means he will have a lot of versatility in the offense and can be utilized in the slot as needed. He spent his first season in Fresno learning the playbook and getting into the weight room, and is now at about 170lbs for spring football. He’s another back like Bigelow that I see having more of a place in the 2022 playbook, but he will have two extremely highly touted freshman coming up behind him, along with guys like Wilmore and Bigelow to fight off to be a lead back.

The staff did not expect both Rivers and Mims to return for 2021, so they recruited two new running backs in the 2021 class, and both come in with very high recruiting profiles, and one carries a lot of expectations from the Valley fans. The highest rated coming in is Jordan Hornbeak, out of Fresno’s San Joaquin Memorial High. Being a local star means that Hornbeak had a lot of eyes on him, and the Bulldogs beat out a lot of programs for the services of the back. He decided to play his Spring football season which begins this week. In 2019, he ran for 1,700, as well as another 150 receiving yards. And he played on defense, racking up 48 tackles. He is the highest rated running back to commit to Fresno State in the 24/7 Sports era, and truly projects as a do-everything sort of back at 6’0”, 195lbs.

On the other side, Johnathan Arcenaux hails from Lawndale, CA, where incoming OG Rolan Fullwood also is. Arcenaux also stands at 6’0” and 185lbs, so a very similar size to Hornbeak. He is also projected in the same vein as Jordan Mims now, where he has more of a top-end speed to slip out of the backfield and down the sideline, but can still cut through the A-gap for the tough yards. I have a feeling though that the coaches may see one, if not both of the incoming freshmen as redshirt candidates, with the potential of using their 4 games of eligibility to test them out towards the end of the season.

Filling out the room are walk-ons Estevan Barragan and Elijiah Gilliam. Barragan is currently a sophomore, and Gilliam is a redshirt freshman. Both players seem to be working the scout team right now, as there are just so many options available to the coaching staff right now. Someone needs to run the scout team though, so these two are always contributing to making the team better.

Projected Rotation:

1: Ronnie Rivers- he comes back for his final year to capture the touchdown record and have an historic season to rival his father’s legacy

1B: Jordan Mims- definitely seems like DeBoer will try to go back to the back rotation that he used the first two years he was in Fresno, rolling Mims out when needed

2: Jevon Bigelow/Jordan Wilmore- Wilmore’s place here is dependant on his eligibility, but the coaches are optimistic that he’ll be available for Fall. Bigelow continues to be used more as a blocking back, but should be usable in short yardage situations for power and push

3: Jordan Hornbeak/Johnathan Arcenaux- the two incoming freshmen will definitely get a look in the Fall when they arrive, but with 4 backs ready to go, they’d need to really blow everyone away to start in 2021. 2022 though should be their time to shine

4: Malik Sherrod- he’s definitely gotten bigger since he arrived on campus, but there’s such a glut of talent ahead of him. He may be used on special teams as a returner the way that Ronnie was the last couple of years

That’s it for the rundown of the Running Back Room going into Spring. Next up, the wide receiver corps!