Even head coach Tim Murphy sounded a slightly concerned note in the preseason.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s hard to tell [how good they are],” Murphy said. “We have depth at running back, but we have to find out if it’s depth from an average group or depth from a good group.”
That question seemed to be answered in the season opener against Holy Cross, when preseason No. 1 Cheng Ho, a sophomore, solidified his starting spot.
“I think it’s been more informal in the coaches’ eyes and probably in the players’ eyes in practice,” Murphy says. “But he clearly, going in, and certainly by what he did at Holy Cross, he’s the guy.”
After running for 145 yards and a touchdown in mop-up duty last year, Ho nearly matched that total in his first start, picking up 116 yards on 24 carries against the Crusaders, including a 47-yard touchdown scamper that showcased solid cutting ability and elusiveness.
“I thought he played a very solid football game,” Murphy said after the opener. “The bottom line is, he competed like heck, and he obviously made a big run.”
Also key to replacing Dawson will be the work of backs in pass protection and blitz pickup, the less glamorous tasks of the position that Dawson excelled at. Ho graded out around 80 percent in the opener—a strong first start—often using cut blocks to stymie opposing rushers.
“I’m relatively smaller than most guys on the field as a back, so I’m just using the advantage I’m provided, which is that I’m allowed to cut,” Ho says. “I guess the bottom line is that they did not touch Liam [O’Hagan], so that’s what I’m hoping for.”
But Ho will hardly be alone in the backfield. Only two backs carried the ball in the season opener, but more depth at the position should be on display all season.
The other back who saw action against the Crusaders was freshman Gino Gordon, a speedy California product who struggled to just eight yards on four carries.
“He’s No. 2 right now, and he’s right in the mix,” Murphy says. “We’ll let Cheng Ho probably get the majority of the reps because he’s earned it, but Gino Gordon, we think he’s a quality player.”
The elder statesman of the unit is senior Charles Baakel, a power back with 154 yards on 50 career carries. He’ll be counted on to shepherd the young runners through the ins and outs of Harvard’s offensive attack despite being a little banged up after preseason camp and seeing no carries in the opener.
“He’s been learning the offense for the past three and a half years,” Ho says. “Every time we’re sitting in a meeting, he sits right next to me, and I can just see him drawing the plays, drawing the playbook, and [he] knows exactly the route, the protection, the blocking scheme, everything. That’s one thing that I always get from him, is learning about the entire offensive scheme.”
Last but not least is sophomore Mike Clarke, a converted wide receiver who Harvard will look to get in space and catch the ball out of the backfield. Clarke also brings more speed to the position.
“He brings a lot of quickness to the field, he makes a lot of distinctive cuts, and he’s always very energetic,” Ho says.
The offensive line that will be clearing holes for this group has suffered some injuries this season, losing two projected starters before the Holy Cross game. Junior Zach Copple suffered a stress fracture during the summer, while senior David Paine went down during the preseason scrimmage with Columbia. As a result, the Crimson will start three sophomores on the line for the first time since 1994, according to Murphy.
Despite that, the running backs are optimistic about the unit in front of them.
“I have no doubt this year that we will definitely produce,” Ho says, “and the reason I’m saying that is because while obviously we have offensive linemen banged up, at the same time, we have a great group of offensive linemen that have worked extremely hard this offseason.
“I love these guys, I love having them block for me. Every single yard that was rushed for this past week—if it wasn’t for them, none of it would have been possible.”
Even if it can’t expect to replace the prodigious production of Dawson, judging by the 178 rushing yards in the opener, the Crimson’s running game is in good hands both on the line and in the backfield. Fans will just have to become accustomed to seeing multiple jersey numbers carry the ball.
“[They] all had great preseasons and springs,” captain Brad Bagdis says. “We’re just not going to have that single featured back like we did last year. We’re definitely going to be featuring more backs.”
Who is featured makes little difference, as long as Ho is correct in his prediction. The depth wasn’t necessary in game one, but expect to see a whole crew toting the ball in 2007.
—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.