When starting running back Alex Thomas ’12 had trouble getting up after an awkward fall against Dartmouth last Saturday, the Yale running game could have shut down. That would have been the case two years ago, when running back Mike McLeod ’09 singlehandedly drove the Bulldogs’ offense.
Instead, Mordecai Cargill ’13 took charge of the game. He rushed 18 times for 126 yards — an impressive seven yards per rush.
But Cargill also had to be helped off the field twice during the game after injuries. He came back both times, but the Yale attack did not suffer in his absence. Javi Sosa ’13 took his first carry of the game — the second of his college career — seven yards for a touchdown, and finished with 50 yards on 8 carries.
“Us three, we developed together and we all complement each other’s running style,” Sosa said. “We have a great stable of running backs. Our coach always tell us that there’s not much dropoff.”
Freshman Elijah Thomas, who has two carries on the season, rounds out the group.
This year’s unit is the youngest in years. Four seniors were part of last year’s rushing attack, and another four seniors took handoffs the year before.
But the yards this year’s group of tailbacks are gaining speak for themselves. Although Yale’s 156.75 yards on the ground may measure a modest fourth in the Ivy League, that is a vast improvement over last year, when the Bulldogs ran for only 93.8 yards each game, last in the Ivy League. Already both Thomas and Cargill have each had a 100-yard game. Thomas’ 124-yard game against Harvard last November was the only time a Yale back accomplished this feat last season.
That increased yardage on the ground is thanks partly to the success of Yale’s passing game. Quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 is leading the top aerial attack in the league, which forces opponents to devote defenders to pass coverage and opens up holes for the running game. But that effect goes both ways. Williams said Witt can buy himself time with play action schemes because other teams fear the rushing attack.
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The depth evidenced in Saturday’s win is a primary reason for Yale’s rushing success.
“We feel like we have four guys who can go out and have productive days for us,” head coach Tom Williams said. “In games like that when you have some guys nicked up, you hope that the player who goes in can bring you some success. Fortunately for us, on Saturday, those guys all played like first string guys.”
Thomas, the holder of almost every Connecticut high school rushing record, is the leader of the group. Cargill said the junior is a quiet presence in the locker room who is willing to let his impressive actions on the field and in practice speak for themselves.
Thomas’ performance has been impressing since well before he arrived at Yale.
“He got better and better every year — it was testament to how hard he worked in the offseason,” said Thomas’ coach at Ansonia High School, Tom Brockett. “He was the hardest worker we’ve ever had academically and athletically. He has a lot of talent on the football field and he took it to the next level with his work ethic.”
Thomas’ coaches at Yale attribute Thomas’ improvement this year — he has added almost 50 yards to his weekly average — to that same work ethic. Thomas added 15 pounds of muscle to his 180-pound frame in the offseason, and coaches say that his strength shows in his game.
“When you watch Alex play you’ll notice that he runs through three or four tackles on every run,” Yale running back coach Roderick Plummer said. “That’s how he gets the ball in the endzone. He has a knack for finding holes, he has really great vision, and when he gets through, he’s tough to bring down.”
Thomas’ strength and size are not unique on the team. Cargill, who stands 6 feet 1 inch tall and tips the scales at 215 pounds, is among the bigger running backs in the Ivy League. He complements that size with unusual speed, according to Plummer. That combination impressed Williams during Cargill’s senior year of high school, and Cargill became one of the first Bulldogs the new coach recruited himself.
“[Cargill’s] got great size and great talent,” Thomas said. “He’s got an interesting running style that gives defenses a lot of trouble. He changes track fast and he’s tough to bring down because he’s a big guy.
Sosa is the smallest and fastest of the group. He brings a 10.8 second 100-meter dash to the team after spending last year with the junior varsity.
“Javi is more of a slashing type runner,” Cargill said. “He has breakaway speed, so the minute you put him in the game there is potential for a big play to happen.”
Each of the three has his own style on the field, and the same is true in the locker room. Thomas leads by example and tends to stay quiet — he says that his pregame routine is simply to put his headphones on, think and pray — while Cargill has embraced a more vocal role in his second season.
“[Thomas] is kind of quiet but he lets his game speak for himself, he just keep producing,” Sosa said. “[Cargill] is more of a vocal leader. He’s very emotional. Myself, I kind of play off [Cargill’s] emotions and I get him ready for games and he gets me ready for games.”
All three cite that camaraderie and the comfort that comes from a year of experience together as a crucial element to their success. Last year was the first time Thomas and Cargill carried the ball regularly, and the three had the chance to practice together all spring.
“When we break every day we say ‘We all we got’ because it’s just the core of us,” Cargill said. “We know the sweating and bleeding you get within that running back circle.”
That core will stay intact next year, and all four running backs will have the chance to build on their success. Thomas will look to rebound against Fordham on Saturday from last week’s injury, while Cargill will try to shake off the limp he was left with by the Dartmouth defense.
These guys are becoming college football players where before they were high school players, good athletes who were learning to play college football,” Plummer said. “They’re only going to get better, they’re only going to get faster, they’re only going to get stronger.”