Since the departure of all-time Ivy League rushing leader Clifton Dawson ’07 after the 2006 season, Harvard has struggled to find a consistent running threat to spearhead what had been a run-heavy offense for a number of years.
In 2007, the team used a mix of then-sophomore Cheng Ho and then-freshman Gino Gordon to mix things up and try to establish a solid run game, but the position remained the lone unfinished product in an otherwise rock solid offensive attack.
But one week into 2008, there’s a new face on the scene threatening to give the Crimson offense a boost.
Enter junior Ben Jenkins.
Last weekend against Holy Cross, the Raleigh, N.C. native made his first-ever collegiate start at running back and seemed to settle into the position quickly, rushing nine times for 34 yards. Fans saw flashes of brilliance, as the junior juked and cut back with ease, keeping the defense honest for the incredibly pass-heavy offense.
“I would say the transition wasn’t as hard as you would think,” Jenkins says. “Because I played running back in high school, it’s more of a natural position for me; I have better insticts. It’s like going home.”
But where did this diamond in the rough come from?
Last season fans could’ve found Jenkins working out with the defense—the secondary, to be exact. But gearing up for a tough Penn run game led by then-senior Joe Sandberg last November, coaches decided to use Jenkins as a scout tailback to prepare the defense for the ground attack. Impressed by his performance, the coaching staff returned the sophomore to running back for a trial run.
The 5’11, 190 pound tailback joined the first team offense in the annual spring game held last April, posting 19 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown. Working hard throughout the offseason and preseason, Murphy gave him the nod for opening night under the lights.
“Jenkins has done a terrific job all preseason, [which is] something that we had not foreseen, moving him over from defense,” head coach Tim Murphy says.
But Jenkins won’t sit comfortably atop the list of running backs on the depth chart.
He is closely followed by classmate Ho and one of the most improved players in the offseason, sophomore Gordon.
“Between the three of them, we’ll have a very solid running back corps,” Murphy says. “More depth, more diversity in terms of what those guys add to the mix…I can’t remember the last time we went into a Harvard game saying we’d play three running backs.”
Murphy showcased his plan of action for the trio last Friday: Jenkins started and played most consistently, but Ho got a few carries in the second and early in the fourth, and Gordon had seven carries for 52 yards—all of which came on Harvard’s final two drives, giving the Crimson the lead, 25-24.
Despite some nagging injuries last season, the sophomore saw time in nine games and is still expected to seriously challenge for the top spot, despite dropping to third on the depth chart to start the season.
“Gino Gordon is probably more improved than any of them,” Murphy says. “He’s our best blocker, he’s gotten a lot quicker, stronger, more physical, more confident, and all of them bring something very good to the table. It’s good news for us. It’s not necessarily great news for playing time as an individual, but we’re just better at running back.”
Certainly don’t count Ho out either. The junior, who started for the Crimson on last year’s championship team, is ready to make an impact and won’t go down without a fight. A 2007 Second Team All-Ivy member, the junior already has 19 games of experience to Jenkins’ one and Gordon’s 10, having rushed for 867 yards on 183 carries.
“It’s going to be pretty much a three-headed monster,” Pizzotti saysw. “All of those guys can pretty much do anything that we ask them to. Cheng, Gino, Ben, they all run extremely hard, they’re all really competitive, they all want to be a solid running back, they’ve all been good about what’s best for the team.”
—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.