The Yale football team entered this season with a deep lineup in the backfield. Now, approaching their final weekend of play, the Elis have translated that lineup into a formidable run game — even without last year’s young phenom, Zane Dudek ’21.

Throughout the season, the Bulldogs (5–4, 3–3 Ivy) have struggled with injuries to experienced players on an already young team. In both Week One and Week Two, the Elis started just one senior across both sides of the ball. Although Yale stormed through last season with just one loss to clinch an outright title for the first time in 37 years, the graduation of starting players on both sides of the ball left questions unanswered for Team 146. Through an at-times frustrating season with bumpy transitions at other positions, the Bulldogs have adjusted particularly seamlessly to changes at running back. Heading into The Game on Saturday, Yale’s rushing game does not look like it unexpectedly lost a major player. While a sprain to the big toe joint has kept Dudek off the gridiron, teammate Alan Lamar ’20 has stepped in to deliver a career year, complemented by rookie contributions.

“Things you can’t control are the opponent, the weather and injuries,” head coach Tony Reno said. “When we came in the season, we knew we were going to be very young, and how young we were was based on certain guys at certain positions … [Dudek] played five quarters of football for us, and he’s a play-maker.”

Dudek, who emerged as a breakout star last season after injury took out older players at his position, was set to be a focal point in the Eli offense this year. The Pennsylvania native was initially kept from primary ball-carrying responsibilities for most of 2017, but after injury downed Deshawn Salter ’18 in Week Seven, the Bulldogs relied heavily on Dudek in the later contests of the season.

With an average of 7.1 yards per attempt, 15 total touchdowns and 1,133 total rushing yards in his first year, Dudek was poised to return for round two as the conference’s premier running back. In September, Reno described Dudek — the 2017 FCS Phil Steele Offensive Freshman of the Year — as an ever-increasing threat with three years still remaining.

Even so, at the time, Reno acknowledged both the team’s depth in the backfield and cited the precedent of injuries in that position. Sure enough, Dudek made a few rushes in the season’s early games but was effectively sidelined for the remainder of the year. But questions about Dudek’s health, which were repeatedly and persistently asked in press conferences in September, all but disappeared as the season progressed.

Reno originally approached running back by committee, given the strength of the depth chart. Lamar, whose own rookie performance highlighted an otherwise dismal 2016 campaign, returned after a preseason injury sidelined him for all of 2017. The class of 2022 also boasted a three-star running back Trenton Charles ’22, who is the Elis’ top-ranked recruit since 2014.

In Dudek’s absence, Lamar has followed up on his second-team All-Ivy first-year season with another season for the books. He opened the year with 11 rushes totaling 66 yards and a touchdown, and since the Bulldogs hosted Dartmouth in Week Four, he has contributed at least 68 yards a contest — surpassing the 100-yard mark against Mercer, Penn and Princeton.

Across the Elis’ last four games, beginning with the contest against the Quakers, Lamar has racked up seven touchdowns. His role as a scoring catalyst, powering the low-point win against Penn and then keeping the Bulldogs in the game against Columbia, is especially significant given the season-ending injury suffered by quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 against Penn and the challenge the Elis faced in adjusting their air game in the wake of that injury.

“Our ground game is really solid,” wide receiver JP Shohfi ’20 said. “Our backs have done an incredible job. Our running game creates a big threat to anyone we face, so that helps every aspect of our offense just by making us very well-rounded. We are confident that we can run or throw the ball successfully.”

Lamar’s reliability on the ground — he has racked up 115 rushes for 684 yards and eight touchdowns across the seven games he has played thus far — has been supplemented by the contributions of rookie Spencer Alston ’22, whose shifty style emerged as a complement to Lamar’s power-runner approach.

Although Team 146 has fallen short of repeat-crown expectations — the preseason media poll picked the Bulldogs to finish atop the league again — Yale has quietly but seamlessly plugged up the gaping hole which the sidelining of a player like Dudek would usually leave.

“What’s made me proud is how guys have stepped in,” Reno said. “Alan Lamar came back from knee surgery and wasn’t really himself early in the year, and now he’s himself again. Spencer Alston has stepped up.”

In the final contests of the year, forced by nonideal circumstances, Yale has stumbled upon a rookie quarterback, Griffin O’Connor ’22, who may define the program in its near future. But while O’Connor attempts to fill Rawlings’ big shoes in the team’s highest-profile game of the year, Lamar and the running back corps have shown that they merely need to continue doing the job they have been doing all year.

Lamar is ranked second in the Ivy League in rushing yards per game, averaging 97.1 across seven contests.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu