BOISE — The evaluation of George Holani does not include much of an argument.
“He’s an NFL running back in my opinion,” said Boise State offensive coordinator Tim Plough.
It sure looks that way. Holani is a 5-foot-11, 208-pound truck with a cinder block taped to the gas pedal. Holani always powers forward, almost inviting the contact because contact usually isn’t going to stop him.
To quarterback Hank Bachmeier, it’s the mundane where Holani impresses most, somehow bouncing and churning and fighting for a 1-yard gain on what “should have been a loss of four,” the BSU gunslinger said.
Everyone who talks about Holani at Boise State does so with reverence in their voice. He is special, they say. And that’s not the argument. Holani rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman. In his final four games last season, he ran for more than 400 yards and led the Broncos to a trio of convincing wins.
The argument is if he can stay on the field.
Holani was sidelined in all-but-three games in 2020 with a torn MCL. He missed time during the beginning and middle of last season with more injuries. And he enters his redshirt junior season with some wondering whether he’s injury-prone or just unlucky.
Boise State doesn’t want to find out. Especially not during a fall practice.
The Broncos are limiting Holani like he’s an NFL quarterback. He is not getting hit, not getting tackled, not getting thrust into a pile of bodies. There is plenty of logic in that. If the star running back goes down in August, coaches look like dummies and the team suffers. The calculated risk doesn’t bear out.
“In camp, I think we all don’t need to see George go in a live setting. I think we know George is pretty good,” Plough said. “It’s more about getting him the touches he needs within the skeleton of practice that allows him to get into the rhythm he needs to get without putting the wear and tear on his body.”
But does that philosophy have a downside? Is there any negative effect from a running back, who might get thrown to the ground 30 times a game, not feeling a live tackle for almost nine months?
Holani doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think it matters,” he said. “I’ve been tackled for three years. I think I’m used to it. But, yeah, I think it’s more just the mentality that if I get tackled, I’m going to be like, ‘OK, I got tackled. I can deal with this.’”
When Holani returned to the field early last season, Plough said his bulldozer of a running back was only able to play 30 snaps a game whether or not he touched the ball, which creates an urgency to use up all his snaps while trying to save him for late in the game.
It’s tough to be efficient like that. But, again, these things are not that cut and dry. Too much too quick leads to more injuries.
After missing the season opener last season, Holani returned to the field the next week. He had five carries against UTEP and a few more in the proceeding two weeks. Then he got hurt against Nevada and was in sweats for the Broncos next few games.
“I tried to come back a little early,” he admitted Wednesday.
Which is why all these procedures are in place and Holani is monitored more closely than an EKG on the President.
“I think when he’s available,” Plough said, “he’ll be as good as anyone in the country.”
For what it’s worth, it seems like Holani is controlling what he can. He’s taken small steps with his diet to get healthier, cutting out sweets and meeting with a nutritionist to meal prep.
Then there’s the football field, where Holani is trying to run reps as normal as possible — save for the tackle.
“Just going hard every play,” he said. “As running backs, we all have one speed and that’s to go full speed and finish.”
The positive from all this: With Holani out of contact drills, the younger guys in BSU’s running backs room will get much-needed reps. That includes freshman Ashton Jeanty, a Texas tornado that has impressed early, and Utah State transfer Elelyon Noa, who just joined the program on Wednesday.
It’s easy to look way down the road, to wonder if Holani can complete a season with a stint on the injury report. But, perhaps, it’s smarter to just look toward Sept. 3, to that night at Oregon State when Holani finally gets tossed to the turf.
The hope is that he gets up. That everyone exhales ... until the next one.