POCATELLO — When he was a redshirt freshman, Ty Flanagan wondered if he’d ever get a shot to lead Idaho State’s backfield.
It’s been a long road, but this fall, Flanagan will get to add that line on his resume as, for the first time, he’ll be the undisputed lead back for the Bengals. James Madison ran for nearly 1,000 yards and earned a second-team all-Big Sky Conference selection in 2018 as a senior, but he’s not around anymore.
That means Flanagan, aside from inheriting some of Madison’s carries, has also taken over the role as the veteran voice among the running backs through the first two days of fall camp.
“If the team needs me to be a leader, I’m going to be that guy every day,” said Flanagan, a fifth-year senior. “Come out, get to practice early, and step up and be that guy that they want me to be. I want to make sure the younger bucks see that I’m leading by example and not messing up every day and stuff like that. And make sure that I’m capitalizing on my mistakes that I do make.”
The majority of the attention early in ISU’s fall camp has been on Gunnar Amos, Matt Struck, and their front-and-center battle to take over for Tanner Gueller as the starting quarterback. But Flanagan and the running backs are also trying to replace a multi-year fixture.
Madison ran for 974 yards last year, his second-straight year going over 900 yards, and earned minicamp shots with the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints.
Adding to the intrigue at running back is the fact that, well, Gueller isn’t around anymore, either. Amos and Struck have both thrown the ball well in fall camp, but it’s likely that the ISU passing game won’t be quite as potent as it has been in the past, which would add to the pressure on the running backs.
“We’ve been lucky, in the years past, with Tanner here, but now that we have guys battling for that quarterback spot, I’ve emphasized how critical it is for us to understand what our responsibilities are in the backfield, so that the quarterback doesn’t have to worry about the running back,” Bengals running backs coach David Fiefia said. “He doesn’t have to alert us to certain things, he does what he has to do and goes through his proper checks.”
The running backs will have a more-than-solid base to build on. Flanagan was nearly as productive as Madison last year, with 803 rushing yards on a 6.1 yards-per-carry average that was near the top of the Big Sky rankings.
The challenge for him will be maintaining that off-the-charts efficiency with an increased workload.
“If we’re just playing numbers-wise, I think (Flanagan) is still going to have to have a guy come in and sub in for him once in a while,” Fiefia said. “But I think naturally, because of the way he’s been training this offseason, I think he’s set himself up well to be able to handle those carries going into the season.”
According to both coach and player, the stocky, dynamic Flanagan is fully over the knee injury that limited him in the spring, and he’s fully embraced the new leadership responsibilities that have come with his new seniority.
What advice from his past has he passed down the younger tailbacks?
“Just staying focused,” Flanagan said. “A lot of the older guys told me to stay focused, stay on the right track. Really, take mental reps. They would tell me to take a lot of mental reps, keep my head in the game. Like, if I mess up on a play, don’t let anything bother me, just move on to the next play. So that’s kind of like what I pass down to the younger bucks, stay locked in at all times.”
A couple of those “younger bucks” — junior Nehemiah McFarlin and redshirt freshman Soujah Gasu — have a chance to step up into Flanagan’s former role now that he’s the featured back.
McFarlin was the third back behind Madison and Flanagan in 2017, running for 156 yards, but then missed all of 2018 and spring ball in 2019 with a knee injury.
He’s back running, although not yet fully participating in drills, through the first two days of fall camp, and Fiefia said that he’ll likely be cleared to play around the time the Bengals start their conference schedule in late September.
“This summer, his work ethic was crazy,” Flanagan said about McFarlin. “He’s anxious to get back on the field, and we want him to get back on the field, because he’s one of the leaders on the team, older guys that have played already.”
In McFarlin’s absence, redshirt freshman Soujah Gasu will likely see the bulk of the non-Flanagan carries.
Coming out of Cyprus High School in West Jordan, Utah, Gasu wasn’t originally in ISU’s plans. But when McFarlin went down with his injury, the Bengals realized that they needed to add a running back to their recruiting class.
“He had been on my radar, but at the time, we weren’t looking for a running back,” Fiefia said. “And then he was still available. He ended up having the grades and the test scores to be able to get into school. It was definitely a diamond in the rough. He still has to prove himself, but a freshman like that to still be available that late, it was a great find for us.”
Gasu played in four games in 2018, retaining his redshirt. Like most freshmen, his biggest obstacle to more playing time was bulking up. Over the course of the spring and summer, he committed himself in the weight room, improved his diet and gained about 10 pounds of, Fiefia, said, “good weight.”
It will be an interesting season to watch for the ISU running backs, as they try to slide into new roles while also being a source of stability for an offense that could use some.
Flanagan, for one, is excited to get started.
“Now that we’re putting all the pieces together, man, it just feels good,” Flanagan said. “Having everybody back, having the freshmen, the newcomers, being able to teach them … it’s a blessing. I’m glad to be out there, I’m glad to be coaching the younger bucks. This is my final year, so it’s all out right now.”
The Bengals stepped up their game on Day 2 of fall camp, stretching the leisurely 90-minute practice of Wednesday out to a full two-and-a-half hours. Because of that, the intensity shot up and highlights were easier to come by.
- Both Amos and Struck threw well in warmups and drills. In early team and 7-on-7 sessions, Struck had the clear advantage, looking unafraid to step up in the pocket and let it rip downfield. That included the best throw of the early sessions, a driven seam throw that hit Austin Campbell in a narrow window between two defenders.
Amos, on the other hand, was very inconsistent early, struggling to complete passes at all. To his credit, he looked like a completely different quarterback in the later sessions. That included the throw of the day, a perfect deep ball to Michael Dean, and a nicely-thrown ball up the seam to Isaiah Brimmer.
Struck upped his game in response as well, breaking right out of the pocket and showing his arm strength again by flicking a deep ball to Isaiah Walter. Other than Amos’ early struggles, it again looked like a good day for both potential signal-callers.
- The defense had some bright spots as well. Oshea Trujillo was one of the standouts. On one early play, he sat on a short hook route for an easy deflection. A later sequence showed off his versatility. On the first play, he dropped in zone coverage again, read an in-breaking route perfectly and nearly came up with another deflection. The very next play, he moved to the other side of the defensive formation and rushed off the edge, timing it nicely to break through the line untouched.
Other defensive highlights included a near pick-six by Jay Irvine, who jumped an out route but had the ball slip through his hands, a couple good plays by Colton Bennion, and, on nearly the last play of the practice, safety Adkin Aguirre breaking on a route and coming up with the defense’s first interception of fall camp.
- Wide receiver DeMonte Horton once again did not participate in practice. Defensive end Rasheed Williams, like McFarlin, was dressed out but didn’t participate in any drills.
- Punter Kevin Ryan was one of the stars of practice, booming several punts deep in special teams walkthroughs and earning appreciative dap from several of his teammates.
- A scout for the New Orleans Saints showed up for the beginning of practice and stayed for about the first 40 minutes.