BOISE — It took three plays during a drive late in the second quarter of Boise State’s eventual 32-29 win at New Mexico last September for Jay Ajayi to enter the picture.

On his first carry of the game and just his second of the season, Ajayi ripped off an impressive 71-yard run. The next play, he ran for eight more. The third play, he ran it in for a one-yard touchdown.

Three plays. Three carries. A strong first impression.

And with D.J. Harper and his 1,137 rushing yards gone to graduation, the backup Ajayi has his chance to step into the forefront of the running back picture this season.

After tearing his ACL while redshirting in the fall of 2011, Ajayi rushed for 548 yards on 82 carries and scored four touchdowns last season. He finished with at least 30 yards rushing in each of the next eight games and he did so in limited duty, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

The redshirt sophomore has gotten most of the first-team reps during spring practices and would seem the obvious choice to get the majority of carries once the regular season starts August 31 at Washington.

But running backs coach Keith Bhonapha won’t go there just yet. Asked what he saw that told him Ajayi was ready to be the featured back, the coach slowed the train just a bit.

“I don’t know yet because I don’t know if he’s ready for that yet,” Bhonapha told the Press-Tribune Monday. “He did play more than anybody else that’s in the room last year, but he definitely has some work to do.

“I think he’s made a lot of progress this spring in the run game, pass protection wise and being a leader in the room, and I think once you combine those three things along with being able to go through the day after day grind of being able to play the position, that’s kind of the steps he needs to take.”

It’s likely typical coach-speak from Bhonapha. Why tell your running back he’s the starter if you don’t have to? Keep him working to improve and keep the others pushing themselves to try and earn carries.

Ajayi will play plenty this fall, but the Broncos coaches want to make sure he earns it.

“I want all these guys to realize that when it comes to playing in the running back room, it’s not just automatically going to be given to a guy just because you played last year,” Bhonapha said. “It’s a guy that shows production, a guy that shows consistency, a guy that embodies all the work we’ve done as a running back room the last six or seven years or whatever it’s been.”

Junior college transfer Derrick Thomas also figures to be in the mix. He rushed for 847 yards last fall at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., including 679 yards in the final seven games.

Thomas finished the season with four consecutive 100-yard games and carried his momentum to Boise, where he’s had an impressive spring.

And the Broncos will need it. Boise State coach Chris Petersen has given multiple running backs carries the past few seasons and needs several options to have consistent success.

“I think at the running back position, you need to have three guys at a minimum feeling they can get something done going into the season,” Petersen said.

“You probably need four or five to feel comfortable. It seems like we never feel comfortable, but we’re going to need three good guys, and just look at that past history, it shows up every year, the third guy, ‘OK, it’s your time in a critical part of the game, you have to make plays.’

“Jay, in the past, we didn’t know much about him but we saw flashes in practice and that carried over last year. Derrick Thomas is doing a really nice job. We don’t know much about him in terms of our system but he shows flashes out there. He stays on track, he’ll show up on game day.”

Petersen apparently wants his running backs to do their talking on the field. He’s made both Ajayi and Thomas unavailable to the media this spring.

Boise State has had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of Bhonapha’s three seasons leading the running backs. Replacing Harper won’t be easy, but the Broncos appear to have the players needed to continue the trend of a strong running game this fall.

“I think we’re working towards that,” Bhonapha said. “I think we have a solid group in the room. It’s starting to separate itself out of who’s going to be that core three or four guys of who we’re looking for, but we have four practices left and we just have to keep working.”

B.J Rains covers Boise State athletics for the Idaho Press-Tribune. He also makes daily appearances on ESPN Boise.

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