USU football: USU lacks FBS experience in RB room, but not depth

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a nine-part series profiling USU's football team position by position.
A lack of experience at the FBS level was not an ideal situation for Utah State's running backs room heading into fall camp, but it doesn't necessarily mean the Aggies lack depth at that position.
It was quite apparent the Aggies have some weapons at tailback when junior college transfers Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison made would-be tacklers whiff on electric chunk-yardage runs during the first scrimmage of fall camp. Additionally, returning lettermen Robert Briggs Jr., who made an impact as a true freshman a year ago, had a 50-yard touchdown run called back on a holding penalty away from the play.
Those three athletes certainly caught the attention of USU head coach Blake Anderson, who asserted "that's a really solid room. We felt like we lacked depth there last year and we just didn’t have the one-two punch, and heck now maybe we’ve got a one-two-three punch, which will be good if we can keep them all healthy."
Briggs, Faison and Booth will be counted on to replace the production of Calvin Tyler Jr., who rushed for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns during his final two seasons in Logan. Tyler was a second-team all-Mountain West selection a year ago as he racked up 1,122 yards on the ground.
The Aggies had a solid one-two punch at tailback last fall when Briggs was healthy. No. 22 suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Hawaii and missed all of spring camp while recuperating. Briggs gained 353 yards and found paydirt once on 74 carries as a true freshman, which included a 10-carry, 85-yard performance against Connecticut and a 19-carry, 87-yard effort against New Mexico. He also averaged 4.6 yards on 10 attempts against BYU.
"(Briggs') recovery has been great," USU running backs coach Rodney Freeman II said. "When I got here in the spring, he didn't go through spring ball and he kind of went through a little individual (training), but yet he came in this summer, got cleared and had a great summer, and he's hit the ground running this fall camp. He's been playing well. He's still got some things he needed to work on and focus up on, but I think he's doing a great job and is setting himself up to have a solid year for us."
USU should be able to ease Briggs back into the lineup, thanks to the emergence of Booth and Faison. Booth was in Logan for spring camp and provided a glimpse of why he racked up 1,442 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per carry en route to earning All-America honors as a sophomore at Cerritos (California) College last fall. Booth also caught 22 passes, including two for TDs, during his second season at Cerritos.
"He was thrown in the fire this spring kind of being the oldest guy in that room, and he's learned the offense and has continued to learn the offense," Freeman said. "Just his ability to press the hole and make guys miss and be a physical runner for us (is big). And then, at times, he's able to separate and run away from guys, so I think those are his traits that we'll try and use this year."
Meanwhile, Faison, who started his collegiate career at Marshall, has been one of the team's biggest breakout performers of fall camp. He was used somewhat sparingly as a sophomore at Snow College, where he gained 355 yards and scored six times on 88 carries, but has definitely flashed during fall camp. Freeman was instrumental in getting Faison to commit to the Aggies in late April.
"We have some good backs that have some good skill sets, (but) we were just kind of lacking that size in that room that (Faison) brings to the table," Freeman said. "So, being able to get ... kind of a bigger guy in the room that also has the ability to make guys miss, win one-on-ones and help out in protection was what we were looking for. And he checked all of those boxes for us."
Should the Aggies have to contend with some injuries in the running back room, they have a couple of veterans to turn to in BYU transfer Sione Finau and dependable punt returner Cooper Jones, who is entering his fourth season at USU. Both are seniors.
Finau played sparingly in three of his four seasons with the Cougars, but was called upon a fair amount during the 2019 campaign as he contributed with 359 yards and a pair of TDs on 59 carries. Finau, who last played in 2021, signed with the Aggies prior to fall camp.
Jones was not called upon to run the pigskin during his first three seasons in Cache Valley, but did return 20 punts and three kickoffs a year ago. No. 31 has suggested he is a capable ball carrier not only this spring and fall, but in previous camps.
"Cooper knows exactly what's going along, he knows where to be," Freeman said. "He does a great job teaching these guys when I'm not around, or helping these guys, getting guys lined up. He's definitely done a good job in a leadership aspect and I wouldn't have a problem with him going in a game at all if he's called upon."
Rounding out USU's running backs room is a trio of true freshmen in Jaydon Bailey, Reggie Foster and preferred walk-on Corbin Cottle, who is an in-state product. Bailey and Foster both had at least one scholarship offer from a Power 5 Conference program. Bailey is coming off a big senior season at a good high school program in Texas (Steele High) as he accumulated 1,778 yards and found paydirt a whopping 31 times.
"Jaydon and Reggie are doing well," Freeman said. "With us kind of having some older guys in the room, they haven't gotten a ton of reps, but they've done a great job in the meeting room of learning and learning from these older guys as well. But we're definitely excited for them. I think they also add some size that we were (lacking) to the room and those two guys can also run. Reggie was a sub-11 guy in the 100 and Jaydon comes from Texas, from a good program down in Texas where they've been bred their entire lives, so those are two guys we are definitely excited about that we want to keep bringing along."
Cottle had some big games during his time at Bountiful High, which included a 19-carry, 267-yard effort against Sky View as a junior. He was a second-team all-state selection as a junior.
Indeed, Freeman has a bevy of options in the running back room and all but Finau and Jones have at least one more year of eligibility remaining. What are Freeman's biggest expectations for the tailbacks in his room?
"Be productive," he asserted. "You know, I don't really care who it comes from, we've just got to be productive. We've got to protect the football and protect the quarterback. That's our job. If we get an opportunity to make plays in the run game, we've got to take advantage of it and also in the pass game, whether it be protection or us getting out and being able to catch the ball out of the backfield. But we've got to be productive. We've got to add value to this football team."
When asked about the biggest things he has been trying to shore up in his room during fall camp, Freeman answered "to be disciplined, be disciplined with our eyes, be disciplined with our pass protection." He harped about the importance of protecting the football — "it's something we've got to focus on every single day and the moment we lax, that's when it gets you." — and the importance of being "intentionally focused every single day."
Like every other positional group, the running back room is a work in progress for the Aggies, but Freeman is confident about the potential of his playmakers.
"I would say just being able to make guys miss, being able to win one-on-ones," Freeman said when asked about the strengths of the room.
How has the best hands in the running backs room?
Freeman's answer: "I think all of these guys have good hands. I think all of them do a good job running routes, being able to set guys up and I think they all have pretty decent hands, for sure, and we definitely want to exploit some of those matchups and create one-on-ones with linebackers and have some mismatches and take advantage of them."
Who is the best blocker in the room?
Freeman's answer: "I would say right now the guy that probably has a good knack for it, I would go with Briggs right now. I think all of those guys have the ability and will (develop) abilities to step up and block. And they all know if you don't block, no rock, so they have to step up in pass protection and if they're called on, to block in the run game. ... With our offense, we don't have time to sub a guy for a certain play. You've got to be able to do it all and if you can't do it all, that's kind of going to hold you back."
Who is the fastest guy in the room?
Freeman's answer: "I'd probably say Briggs right now."
Best overall athlete in the room?
Freeman's answer: "Man, all of those dudes are pretty good athletes. I've got a tough job to figure out who's going to fit in and where, but I think those guys are pretty neck and neck in those areas. They all have great traits. They all are a little different, but they're all great athletes in that room."

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