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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Aggies running back Robert Turbin runs in for an easy touchdown in a game against BYU on Sept. 30, 2011.
USU football: Aggies search for next great back
USU football » Hill, Lee are in the running to replace NFL-level ballcarriers.
First Published Mar 25 2013 05:09 pm • Last Updated May 31 2013 11:37 pm

Logan • Before they ever were being groomed for the NFL Combine or Pro Day, they were carving out yards on Saturdays at Romney Stadium. And before they became gridiron stars for the Aggies, they were in the weight room lifting and on the practice field running through drills.

Before Robert Turbin, Michael Smith and Kerwynn Williams glamorized the running back position at Utah State, before they cast immense shadows that will linger in memories, they were pushing themselves to be great.

At a glance

Utah State’s running back royalty

Some of the Aggies’ top running backs have come through the program in the last few years (parentheses denote school rank):

Robert Turbin » 3,315 rush yards (No. 5); 308 points (No. 1); Drafted by the Seattle Seahawks

Michael Smith » 1,312 rush yards; 7.1 rushing yard average (No. 1*); Drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Kerwynn Williams » 2,515 yards (No. 7); 6,928 yards (No. 1)

*Minimum 150 attempts

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That’s where Joe Hill, Kelvin Lee and the whole crop of backs find themselves now. And where some might find the path daunting, the current cast is invigorated by the challenge.

"It is a big thing here," Hill said. "But the backs we have can live up to that expectation. We want to be great backs and produce on the field every year."

That is the bar at Utah State. It’s a sky-high one.

With Turbin and Smith drafted into the NFL last year and Williams likely to follow suit, who will be the next great Aggie back? The group that has taken the field this spring believes the answer is one of them.

It could be Hill, whose speed and elusiveness got him onto the field as Williams’ backup last season. His explosiveness and nose for the end zone — he scored seven touchdowns last year — make him a seemingly solid fit, and he’s been taking reps with the first team.

The junior has an edge in experience in Utah State’s offense, one that requires the running back to get involved in a myriad of ways: not just running but blocking and often catching the ball out of the backfield. The time he’s put into his work off the field has helped more than anything, he said.

"Mike, Kerwynn, Turb — they taught me a lot," Hill said. "You’ve gotta get in the film room, you’ve gotta study, you’ve gotta know defenses. You take it as your job. Be serious or you shouldn’t be out there."

But Hill isn’t alone on the field. Kelvin Lee, a compact and sturdy sophomore who saw the field as a rookie, also is out for more carries. Lee, potentially more of a straight-line runner than Hill, also played slot receiver in high school, so he’s used to versatility.

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He got used to off-the-field ribbing as the youngest of the running back group, but it mutes when he puts on a helmet and pads. And lately it’s become less frequent in film study, too.

"I’m the youngest," Lee said. "I’m the baby. I basically look up to them. But at the same time, they know I’m here for business, so we’re all on the same page."

They all get a clean slate, in one sense. Recently hired position coach Dave Ungerer said he’s been encouraged by seeing how his players have responded to filling the cleats of backs who ran for thousands of yards.

"I don’t think it’s pressure — it’s pride," he said. "I think they’re proud of that tradition."

At times, Lee feels the anxiety of a teenager getting the keys to a Corvette. But he realizes there’s no backing down.

"It comes down to this is what I wanted," Lee said. "My freshman year I didn’t play as much as I wanted. This is my chance to show coach I should be playing."


Twitter: @kylegoon

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