Running Back University: How Boise State has become a powerhouse for running backs

Photo by Niamh Brennan

A long time ago on a Blue Turf not so far away, resided a thousand yard season, record breaking games, double digit touchdowns — all from Boise State running backs.

Over the years, many great running backs have stepped on the blue turf at Boise State University, and many of them have also graduated to the National Football League (NFL).

From first round draft pick Doug Martin, to Super Bowl champion Jay Ajayi, here’s a list of the great running backs that launched from the blue turf to the NFL grass

Over the years, Boise State University has been the home to many great running backs, most recently with Ashton Jeanty and George Holani.

IAN JOHNSON (2005-2008)

Ian Johnson, perhaps the most important running back to the Broncos in recent memory, played on one of the most historic Boise State football teams of all time.

After four seasons on the Blue, he accumulated 4,183 rushing yards and 58 rushing touchdowns, with a highlight season in 2006 where he had 1,713 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns, helping bring home a Fiesta Bowl victory to Boise State.

Shortly after the game, Johnson proposed to girlfriend Chrissy Popadics, head cheerleader at Boise State, cementing a great Cinderella story for Boise.

Johnson is tied at 15th all time in career rushing touchdowns with 58 and 27th for single season touchdowns with 25 in all of college football.

When the NFL draft came around, things looked pretty bright for the young running back. He ran the fastest 40 yard dash time of any running back in the 2009 NFL combine with a 4.46.

Johnson unfortunately did not get drafted, however, he was signed as a free agent to the Minnesota Vikings, where he played a preseason game, scoring two touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys.

The following season, he was waived and signed to the practice squad. He would bounce around as a practice squad player from there to the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and finally the Miami Dolphins.

After football, Johnson became a State Farm agent in Boise, where he lives now. He and his wife have one daughter, Johannah.

DOUG MARTIN (2007-2011)

Nicknamed “The Bowling Ball” by the media and “Muscle Hamster” by his teammates, Martin was part of the iconic 50-3 Boise State football team, where he accumulated two 1,200 yard seasons and 43 career touchdowns.

As great as he was for the Broncos, he doesn’t hold many records for stats like rushing yards or touchdowns. How could this be? Oh right, Kellen Moore.

The timeless quarterback/running back duo spent four seasons on the Blue, and together they brought home three bowl victories, including a Fiesta Bowl, in Boise State’s golden age of football.

Martin went on to the 2012 NFL draft and was taken by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round, pick No. 31. 

He went on to have a great career, notching two 1,400 yard seasons, which put him at the 2nd and 3rd place in all time Buccaneer single season rushers. He also made two appearances in the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2015.

His all-time NFL stats come out to 5,356 rushing yards, 30 rushing touchdowns, 1,207 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns.

JAY AJAYI (2012-2014)

Ajayi’s journey to the blue turf wasn’t as straightforward compared to other backs on this list.

Born in London, England, Ajayi moved to Maryland at the age of seven, and later to Frisco, Texas during his high school years.

Ajayi took over for Martin seamlessly, and holds a place in Boise State’s record books with the most single season rushing yards, all purpose yards and touchdowns, all during the 2014 season.

At 21, the young back entered the 2015 NFL draft and was selected by the Miami Dolphins in round five, pick 149.

He went on to spend three seasons in south beach, notching a 1,200 yard season in 2016, before being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017.

Ajayi’s role was progressively reduced as the seasons went on, but still found himself in the backfield in Super Bowl LII.

He notched 57 yards on nine carries, averaging 6.3 yards per carry and joined a short list of Broncos turned Superbowl champions.

The following year, Ajayi tore his ACL in week five and struggled with injury until his eventual retirement in 2022.

In the final game of the regular season, the Eagles named him honorary captain in their game against the Dallas Cowboys.

JEREMY McNICHOLS (2014-2016)

McNichols, the second Tampa Bay draftee on this list, sort of takes on the ‘middle child’ role amongst recent Bronco running backs. 

McNichols’ starting career at Boise State stretched through the 2015 and 2016 season as he racked up 1,337 yards, 20 touchdowns and 1,709 yards and 23 touchdowns respectively, while bulldozing the Broncos to Poinsettia and Cactus Bowl victories. 

In 2017 he was taken by the Buccaneers in the fifth round, but was later released by the team in early September 2017.

Just two days later, the young back signed to the San Francisco 49ers practice squad and was elevated to the active roster late November 2017.

McNichols bounced around the league over the course of his NFL career. After his first stint with the 49ers, he moved to the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, the Titans again, Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers and most recently the 49ers again.

His longest time spent with any one team came in his second stint with the Titans in 2020. He finished that season playing all 16 games and a wildcard playoff matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.

Fun Fact: McNichols played in Snoop Dogg’s youth football league.

ALEXANDER MATTISON (2016-2018)

Alexander Mattison’s role on this list is somewhat difficult to describe. 

He didn’t have the most yards or the most touchdowns. He wasn’t the biggest or the strongest, but the guy is still a top three talent in Boise State running back history.

In his two seasons starting he garnered 1,086 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first season and 1,415 yards and 17 trips to the endzone in his final season on the Blue.

His relatively “low” production by Boise State standards likely comes from the fact that the team didn’t need to run the ball very much. Mattison shared the backfield with future NFL quarterback Brett Rypien, who threw the ball 447 times for 3,705 yards in 2018 and has the most career 300+ yard passing games in Boise State history with 21.

Regardless, Mattison’s career as a Bronco was vital to Boise State’s dominance during this era.

Unfortunately, he had an anticlimactic ending to his final season at Boise State as after winning the 2018 Mountain West Conference Championship MVP after rushing for 200 yards and a touchdown, his the First Responder Bowl was canceled due to a lightning storm.

In 2019, he declared for the NFL draft and was taken in the third round and 102nd overall by the Minnesota Vikings where he’s been for the entirety of his very successful career.

Rushing for 2,307 career yards and 17 career touchdowns, he’s played in three playoff games for the Vikings, where they’ve notched a 1-2 record in the postseason.

Mattison holds a firm spot on Minnisota’s lineup, and has many more years to come. He’s most recently been campaigning for the team to resign quarterback Kirk Cousins.

GEORGE HOLANI (2019-2023)

Holani’s time as a Bronco running back has been one of many highs and lows.

After a 1,000 yard rushing season in 2019 and winning Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors, he got hit with the injury bug in 2020 and 2021, costing him a total of 12 games.

2022 was his comeback year as he played in every game and racked up 1,157 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.

In his last year of eligibility, Holani found himself back on the injury wagon as he went out in week one against the University of Washington.

He missed six games before coming back just in the knick of time to replace an injured Ashton Jeanty in the University of Wyoming game.

Holani would go on to have a great rest of the season, notching two games rushing for more than 100 yards and averaging 88.7 yards per game during that stretch.

He had a monstrous final performance as a Bronco in the LA Bowl, rushing for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Less than a week later, Holani announced that he’d declare for the NFL draft.

Holani’s career stats at Boise State come out to 3,596 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry, 777 receiving yards and 34 touchdowns, and is projected as a late round draft pick.

ASHTON JEANTY (2022-Present)

In just two seasons, Jeanty has put up some impressive numbers, and they’d be even better if it weren’t for a midseason injury that limited his carries late in 2023.

He came here and ran beside Holani in 2022, but due to a week one injury to Holani in 2023 Jeanty became the bell cow for the Broncos for most of the season.

In that time, the sophomore running back put together an immaculate season, posting 1,347 yards, 14 touchdowns and countless hurdles over defenders.

In 2024, he won’t be sharing the backfield with Holani anymore sadly, but he will have new quarterback Malachi Nelson beside him to possibly reduce the times the offense calls on him.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Troy Sawyer

    Nice article, but you should have included Brock Forsey. Local boy who started the golden Era out with Boise State’s first bowl win aand went on to play with the Chicago Bears. And maybe even Cedric Minter, Original RB.

    1. Stan Counsell

      So agree, Troy! They produced very well and bled blue.

  2. Stan Counsell

    I’d love to see the return of the proficient passing games of yore…was so-so with slow/iffy receivers that couldn’t create space. Super-producing QBs, WRs, TEs (MIA for years) will give defenses pause in stacking the box against the running game.
    Our defense was cause for wearing paper bags too. Will it change with Danielson, portals, and recruits? Here’s hoping!

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