Jack Warhola

During a turbulent season accentuated by key injuries, the Yale football team’s stable of running backs held together Team 146’s season. A year later, the team’s halfbacks seem poised to continue racking up yards on the ground in 2019 with a versatile backfield.

Last fall, the Elis returned 2017 Ivy League Rookie of the Year running back Zane Dudek ’21. Alan Lamar ’20 — after sitting out an injury-ridden sophomore season — returned for eight games in 2018, while the Bulldogs also added a slew of first years to their backfield roster. The Elis’ remarkable depth and skill at the position were slightly tempered by a nagging foot injury to Dudek that limited his action to just 70 carries. Yet, the Elis still leaned heavily on a reliable core of backs, including Lamar and promising rookie Spencer Alston ’22. Now, with versatility and experience in the backfield, the Elis embark on their 147th season with an embarrassment of riches at the running back spot to round out an offensive arsenal that also boasts a battle-tested passing attack and offensive line.

“Having [starting quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20] and [Dudek] back healthy is huge,” head coach Tony Reno said. “[The team has] matured during the offseason … our goal is always to get better every day, to play and do things for each other.”

After Dudek, the 2017 Phil Steele FCS Offensive Freshman of the Year and First Team Freshman All-American, was limited due to a toe injury, Lamar came off a significant sophomore injury of his own to take the reins as Team 146’s primary ball carrier. Lamar’s improvement throughout the season was particularly commendable — in a span of 10 weeks, he steadily built on his rookie campaign to earn a First-Team All-Ivy nod while amassing 685 rushing yards and nine touchdowns across eight games.

Alston, in his debut season, also emerged as a viable and dependable option in the backfield. Alston was one of several talented ball carriers in the class of 2022 — classmate Trenton Charles ’22 made waves in the high school circuit in Louisiana. Alston earned his minutes steadily throughout the season, serving as a shifty complement to Lamar’s sturdier style to eventually take on serious responsibilities in the Elis’ rushing attack. He finished the season with 384 total rushing yards and three touchdowns.

To add to an already bulky roster of running backs that took no serious hits from the graduation of the class of 2019 in May, two rookie halfbacks join the roster over the summer: Josh Eboboko ’23 and Joshua McKenzie ’23. Eboboko, who played high school football in Charlotte, totaled 1,186 rushing yards and 1,102 receiving yards while also finding the end zone 20 times. McKenzie, a New Jersey native, brings a physical skill set to the team, also competing as a wrestler for Bergen Catholic.

Now with the entirety of the depth chart presumably healthy, the combination of a dominant rushing attack and a lethal passing game could see the Elis tear apart defenses and post numbers rivalling those of the undefeated Princeton squad, which claimed the 2018 Ancient Eight crown.

“Having a great group of running backs allows for us to continually hit other teams with fresh legs, which is huge,” Rawlings said. “Every one of them is special in their own way and having different skill sets allows us to get diverse in the ways we can use them all, which is always fun. … Being up close and watching these special backs tear through defenses and make guys miss tackles is very exciting to watch.”

Yale concluded last season with a disappointing 45–27 loss to Harvard at Fenway Park. Although the contest remained back-and-forth for most of the game, Yale’s offense never managed to pull the Elis ahead as the Crimson ran away with the victory late in the fourth behind their own trio of talented tailbacks. Dudek, still recovering from his injury, made a handful of appearances — with each rush seeming like it might reinvigorate the Elis — before retreating to the sidelines yet again.

Since last November, Reno and the team have dedicated time in the offseason working on building up strength, speed and size for their return to the gridiron this season in an effort to minimize injuries on both sides of the ball.

“A lot of hard work and the weight room and conditioning [in the off- and pre-season] has led to now,” captain and wideout JP Shohfi ’20 said. “The team has been really motivated. The energy is great now, and we’re all excited to play football again soon.”

The Bulldogs open their 147th season on Sept. 21 when they host Holy Cross.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Cristofer Zillo | cris.zillo@yale.edu