Allen Chang

Here’s a scary thought for football teams around the Ivy League: Running back Zane Dudek ’21 still has three years of eligibility remaining. And he seems to be getting better.

As a true first year last season, the versatile back from Pennsylvania took the Ancient Eight by storm, racking up 15 touchdowns and 1,133 rushing yards, along with a school-record 7.1 yards per attempt, en route to a rookie of the year selection. Head coach Tony Reno wisely refrained from leaning on Dudek for most of the season until injury issues caused Reno to rely heavily on the rookie toward the end of the campaign. But with a deep and versatile running back corps that also returns 2016 second-team All-Ivy selection Alan Lamar ’20, who missed last season with an ACL tear, it will be interesting to see how Reno handles his embarrassment of riches in the backfield.

“The one thing I’ll say about Zane is that he’s a tireless worker, so he’s made himself a better football player from the last play of our last game until the first play of this year,” Reno said. “He’s stronger, he’s faster, he’s more athletic, he understands our schemes better, he catches the ball better than he has. He’s really ratcheted up two or three times what he was. The difference is everyone knows who Zane Dudek is now.”

Despite graduating three All-Ivy selections on the offensive line, Yale loses just one running back from its 2017 championship squad in Deshawn Salter ’18, who racked up 544 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 7. Salter served as a great complement to Dudek throughout the season as a primarily downhill, between the tackles runner. But even in Salter’s absence, Dudek showed his promise as a three-down back with the ability to run effectively inside and outside.

In the final two games of the season, Dudek received the bulk of the workload, with 60 combined carries, while wide receiver Melvin Rouse II ’21 took over from Dudek for several rushes per game. Fortunately for the Elis, their two returners on the offensive line, center Sterling Strother ’20 and guard Dieter Eiselen ’20, both garnered All-Ivy accolades a season ago, and they will look to lead a punishing ground game that finished first in the Ivy League in rushing offense with 216.8 yards per game in 2017.

“[The offensive line] has been awesome so far,” Dudek said. “We graduated three guys, and we’ve had a bunch of people step up to fill their place. We’re never exactly going to replace the guys that we had last year, they were all-Ivy guys. But this year, we’ve had people that want to start and want to get that playing time, and they’ve been doing such a good job. From running behind them all camp, I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done already.”

Now, Dudek’s emergence as the Ancient Eight’s premier running back will be bolstered by the return of Lamar as well as the addition of three-star running back Trenton Charles ’22 out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As a freshman, Lamar led the Bulldogs in rushing in 2016, despite starting in just five games before a torn ACL in a preseason scrimmage forced him to sit out the entirety of the 2017 season.

Charles, meanwhile, comes in as Yale’s highest rated recruit since quarterback-turned-linebacker Tre Moore ’19 committed to the Bulldogs in 2014. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound running back was graded as one of the top 55 tailbacks in the entire country for the 2018 recruiting cycle. Charles received offers from the likes of FBS Power-5 schools such as Arizona, Northwestern and TCU, but pledged to the Bulldogs before rushing for 1,195 yards and 12 touchdowns as senior at Scotlandville Magnet with an exorbitant average of 7.8 yards per carry.

“The [Yale] coaches have shown me nothing but love and respect,” Charles tweeted when he announced his commitment. “I feel like this decision is not only the best choice for the next four years, but also the next 40 years of my life.”

With such a loaded group of runners, Reno may choose to run by committee, as he has done in the past. But Dudek’s outstanding rookie season may cause him to think twice. The last time Reno had a first-team All-Ivy back in 2014, the coach went all in with All-American running back Tyler Varga, who carried the ball 223 times in his senior season, for 1,423 yards.

Moreover, with Lamar returning from injury, it remains to be seen whether he will receive a full workload from Week 1 or whether Reno will ease him back onto the field. Described as “much more of a power runner” by Reno, Lamar will team up with Dudek to provide the sort of one-two punch Dudek had with Salter last season.

“We’ve always rotated backs,” Reno said. “We’ve got a good group of guys, but if history tells us anything, we’ll need a lot of them, so having that the depth there is really important.”

Other contenders for limited playing time include runnings backs Spencer Alston ’22, Kyle Ellerson ’19 and Michael Purvey Jr. ’21.

Joey Kamm | joseph.kamm@yale.edu

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu