Deion Smith wore a big smile as he got on the elevator at the Champions Center on Tuesday.
Colorado’s leading rusher is healthy again and ready to get back on the field when the Buffaloes (1-9, 1-6 Pac-12) visit No. 15 Washington (8-2, 5-2) on Saturday in Seattle (7 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
“He was full speed (on Tuesday), looked great,” interim head coach Mike Sanford said.
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This certainly hasn’t been an easy season for the Buffs, but one of the positives that has emerged in recent weeks is the production of the run game, and it’s not just Smith.
CU’s offensive line has bonded to the point that several different running backs, including Smith and senior Alex Fontenot, have excelled.
“The offensive line takes a lot of pride in our work and we know that when it comes down to it, the offensive line needs to be the backbone of the offense,” guard Tommy Brown said. “So we just go out there trying to do our job.”
CU hasn’t posted eye-popping rushing totals, but that’s in part because the games don’t allow for that. The Buffs have routinely faced 20-plus point deficits this season, and they’ve been blown out the last two weeks. That has forced them to try to throw the ball to get back into games.
“At times, that’s been kind of our season,” Sanford said after Friday’s 55-17 loss to USC. “You want to continue to run the football, you want to continue to play to your strengths. But at times, if you’re down two, three scores, you also have to be able to mix in some explosive pass game. … That’s a challenge because I do think that was something that overall we did a good job of running the football.”
Smith finished with 111 yards — his first career 100-yard game — in a 42-34 loss to Arizona State on Oct. 29. He was then injured during the first series the next week against Oregon.
Fontenot has picked up the slack, however. He rushed for 108 yards at USC, posting his first 100-yard game in nearly three years.
Since returning from his injury two weeks ago, Fontenot has averaged 5.5 yards per carry (149 yards on 27 carries). Freshman Anthony Hankerson has also done well, with 75 yards on 16 carries (4.7 per carry) the last two weeks.
Smith is averaging 5.1 yards on the season, while Fontenot is at 5.0 and Hankerson at 4.0.
“Most of the time I have no clue who’s behind us until they go past,” Brown said. “So it’s cool; they all have their own unique running style and I think they bring positives in their styles. So either way, I know we’re gonna be good with whichever back is back there.”
Facing the 15th-ranked Huskies will be another significant challenge for the Buffs, but they’re hoping they can lean on their talented backs to get the run game going and make it a big factor.
While Smith leads the team with 381 rushing yards, Fontenot is coming off his best game since 2019 and looked like a star against the Trojans.
“Alex is an incredible running back and I think the offensive line, we just try to do our job every play,” Brown said. “It doesn’t work out every time, but most of the time we do our job and things go well, so we’re just gonna keep doing that.”
With Fontenot, Hankerson and Smith healthy, along with power back Jayle Stacks, the Buffs are as healthy as they’ve been all season in the backfield. They’ve also got walk-on Charlie Offerdahl, who had solid production early in the season.
“There’s been a little bit of a trend for us: offensive line is playing better, running back position’s getting healthier,” Sanford said. “I think that’s a positive sign for us. We know these last two games are gonna be really tough games, but also really physical games.
“The running back group as a whole and the offensive line group as a whole and then (tight end) Brady Russell in blocking, I think have been really positive developments for us. It’s just not getting in those situations where we need to throw it to get back into it. We’re a better operation when we can get into a bit of a rhythm running the football.”
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