In each of Head Coach Tony Reno’s first two seasons at the helm of the Yale football program, the focal point of the Bulldogs’ offensive attack has been the run game.
But following running back Tyler Varga’s ’15 injury-plagued 2013 campaign, which came just one season after being named to the all-Ivy first team, the backfield has some question marks attached to it.
“To put an asterisk on it, if Tyler Varga is healthy, our running backs are the strength of the team,” Reno said at the preseason Ivy League media press conference. “[But] health is an issue.”
Varga made his presence felt from day one after transferring from the University of Western Ontario in 2012. Though he played in just eight games, Varga led all Bulldog rushers with 935 yards on the ground, rushing for 90 or more yards in every contest in which he appeared.
The 5’11”, 224-pound power back added to his legacy in the 2013 opener against Colgate, toting the ball 39 times for 236 yards, which ranked third in school history for a single game. Following two more 100-yard performances in wins over Cornell and Cal Poly, however, Varga saw his productivity decline before suffering a foot injury in the Elis’ loss to Fordham.
In his absence, true freshman Candler Rich ’17 stepped up to the plate and delivered, rushing for 159 yards against Fordham and taking the bulk of the carries in the next two games. Kahlil Keys ’15 also saw a lot of action, breaking off a school-record 94-yard touchdown scamper.
“We’re very fortunate [with our] running back situation,” Reno said. “We have three returning guys in Tyler [Varga], Kahlil [Keys] and Candler [Rich], who are all very talented running backs.”
Reno also said that Varga will get carries if healthy, but that Keys and Rich will continue to see action. He also cited the play in camp of Galen McAllister ’17 and Everett Johnson ’15 in the backfield.
Varga’s absence for parts of last season forced the Yale offensive scheme to become more creative, leading to current captain Deon Randall ’15 shifting to play running back on occasion. That should continue this year, according to Randall.
“My role in the offense will be similar to what it was last year,” Randall said. “I will play both slot receiver and running back and contribute however else I can.”
Randall’s versatility was a major asset for the Bulldogs last season. In addition to 85 catches and eight receiving touchdowns, he added 176 rushing yards and another three scores, including the game-winning, 32-yard dash against Brown on Nov. 9.
While Varga is still on the mend, Reno said that he has been running around pretty well in preseason camp.
“I think the truth is going to be when he gets in a game situation,” Reno said. “We feel pretty confident right now that the progress he’s made has been solid and he’ll continue to make progress to be able to play in the first game.”
No matter who lines up at tailback for the Bulldogs, the offense will be forced to deal with two new starters on the offensive line. According to Reno, a pair of sophomores, Khalid Cannon ’17 and Mason Friedline ’17, will move to the first team.
Despite their youth, both Cannon and Friedline held scholarship offers from Division-I programs. According to 247sports.com, Cannon chose Yale over offers from Navy and Louisiana-Lafayette, while Friedline received offers from half of the Pacific-12 Conference, including Washington and Arizona State.
“Both guys … did a great job over the offseason,” Reno said of the pair. “One of the most important things on the offensive line that you find on any level is the camaraderie and the ability to play together. They’ve really built those bonds with Ben Carbery ’15, with [Luke] Longinotti ’16 and with Will Chism ’15.”
The Bulldogs open the season on Sept. 20 against Lehigh. Kick-off is at 1:00 p.m.