BEAUMONT, Texas – It can be argued that in the world of sports too much youth is a curse. Lamar University head football coach Mike Schultz tends to look at youth from a different perspective. “When you think of the word ‘youth’ people will immediately jump to inexperience, but it can also be a blessing. Sometimes the younger players don’t know that they don’t know.”
Throughout camp LU fans will hear the word “young” tossed around quite a bit, and it’s not an excuse. Not only are the Cardinals young – 13 returning starters and only two with three years of experience – but every player is having to adjust to a new system.
“When we talk about youth, it’s not just freshman we’re referring to,” said Schultz. “We have several transfers, junior college guys who have experience at the collegiate level but these guys are all young to our system.”
The word youth probably describes no position group better than the Cardinals’ running backs. The Cardinals lost their top-two backs from last season, including an All-American who left as the program’s leading rusher. The team’s second leading rusher was just a freshman in 2016 but decided to hang up the cleats in the offseason.
The current stable of backs consists of only two players who have game experience for the Red and White, two transfers, a true freshman and a redshirt freshman. The two players with LU experience have combined to play in 9 games with a total 23 carries. The lone senior of the group, James White, is a transfer from Texas A&M.
A bruising back with good size and speed, White has experience with the Cardinals but it comes from the other side of the field. During the 2014 showdown against Texas A&M, White carried the ball 11 times for 62 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a pass for seven yards.
In his own personal attempt to redeem himself for that game in the mind of LU fans, White was impressive during the spring. The 6-0, 220-pound back from Pearland got the bulk of the carries with the No.1 offense throughout spring camp. He has continued to impress during the early part of preseason.
“James is a great leader,” said assistant coach Eric Buchanan who has been entrusted with the task of strengthening the LU backfield. “He was on board from day one and never showed any resistance to things he might have learned differently from his previous school.
“The biggest asset this guy brings to the team might just be his leadership. Being an older guy, he commands respect from everyone when he walks in the room by the way he carries himself. You can look at him and tell that he is committed to working hard and that rubs off on the other guys,” added Buchanan.
The during the annual Red vs. White scrimmage, White showed his ability to pick up tough yards in traffic carrying the ball five times for 49 yards (9.8 ypc), including a nine-yard scamper for a touchdown on his last carry of the day.
“In addition to the experience that I bring, I want people to know that I’m going to play hard,” said White. “Even if I don’t get the ball I’m going to block for the guy who does. I just want to do anything I can to help this team win.”
White will not be a one-man show for the Cardinals. In fact, he has been pushed since the players reported for camp by true freshman Myles Wanza. One of the big names in a recruiting class that was ranked second in the Southland Conference (247Sports.com), Wanza has impressed everyone with his speed.
“Myles is a special back,” said White. “He is a very balanced runner and stays low to the ground. He is a very fast athlete, but also has great field vision. He is going to be a special player.”
Wanza’s skills on the field come as no surprise to the LU brain trust. A Houston Chronicle Top 100 recruit in the state of Texas, Wanza was a finalist for the Greater Houston Offensive Player of the Year award as a senior. He rushed for more than 1,600 yards and 22 scores in just nine games as a senior for Summer Creek High School.
“One of the most impressive things about Myles is his speed,” said Buchanan. “He put up some really impressive numbers on the track as a junior which made everyone take note. One of the things we like about him in the recruiting process was watching him separate from guys.”
The two players with prior experience are junior Emmanuel Atoyebi and sophomore Derrion Randle. Atoyebi’s action has been limited to a handful of games in two years, while Randle was one of the top freshmen in 2015 before an injury slowed his path. He bounced back to play in seven games last year with 18 carries for 37 yards.
Not quite the same size as White, Randle brings a similar running style to the Cardinals backfield. A hard-nosed runner, Randle would prefer to run over a would-be tackler than run by him.
“Derrion is a talented runner but he has had to overcome some injuries in his career,” said Buchanan. “Throughout the spring Derrion was battling on every play, and he has looked good to this point through preseason camp.”
Another player waiting for his chance to shine is redshirt freshman Markell Hawthorne. If that name sounds familiar, it should, he’s the brother of LU receiver Martell Hawthorne. Not blessed with his brother’s size, Hawthorne stands 5-11, 188, and enters the 2017 campaign with the benefit of having spent the previous season getting stronger in the weight room.
“Markell is a younger guy who has had the benefit of being able to see how hard his brother works which I think has helped him,” said Buchanan. “Having somebody that you’ve been around your whole life who works hard it motivates you to work just hard.”
This young squad of running backs and the rest of the Cardinals will get their first test Saturday, Sept. 2nd, when they travel to Denton, Texas to take on North Texas. The game against UNT will kick off at 6 p.m.