Last year was supposed to be the season Johnathan Hawkins took over as the University at Buffalo's starting running back. After two years as a reserve, including a 338-yard sophomore campaign, he earned the job out of camp and suited up for the team's first three games.
Then he tore the labrum in his shoulder against Colgate, ending his season in mid-September.
"I could have played through an injury, but after long talks with the doctors and coaches, it was better that I go ahead and redshirt for the entire year and come back and have a better season," Hawkins said Thursday following the Bulls' first scrimmage of fall camp. "When we got the X-rays and everything came back, it was like, 'OK, here. You can tough through it, but it wouldn't be smart.'"
Hawkins' injury opened an opportunity for backup Emmanuel Reed, who only had seven carries entering 2017. The 5-foot-8 speedster demonstrated his worth, running for 840 yards and nine touchdowns and recording five 100-yard outings in 12 games.
Reed showed he's not only worthy of a starting running back position but also garnered national attention. In July, he earned a spot on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the top running back in college football.
"Me and Emmanuel, we go way back," Hawkins said. "We came in together from the first day of freshman year. Ever since then it's been him pushing me to get better and I'm pushing him to get better. To see him finally get that chance to break out and get his carries, I was excited for him."
After an offseason of recovery, Hawkins is back on the field but in a much different position than last year. He's no longer the most established back on the roster.
"I definitely feel like I have to earn a lot more back on the field," Hawkins said. "I have to prove myself again."
While head coach Lance Leipold has been complimentary of the entire position group, the competition for the starting role seems to be a two-man battle. There doesn't appear to be a clear frontrunner through six practices, though Reed took a majority of the snaps with the first team early in the scrimmage.
Hawkins got some work in with the first team early and was featured more heavily once the coaches started experimenting with different combinations as the hour-and-a-half long scrimmage went along.
"It's very competitive," Leipold said. "I think everyone has shown their flashes. I can't say anyone has totally jumped out. ... That may be an ongoing thing for a while, but that's a good issue."
There's a strong possibility the Bulls opt for a running back-by-committee given the two main backs' different styles. Reed is a traditional rusher and is a solid blocker. Hawkins is three inches taller and is better in the passing game. Leipold said you can use him like a sixth receiver.
No matter who is named the starter, both should be featured in the Bulls' deep offensive unit. That's helped the two stay close as they go to battle with each other.
"We're like brothers," Reed said. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who gets the starting job. We're always going to compete. We're always going to be brothers. It's going to be a friendly competition."
"We don't look at who's in there, who's starting," Hawkins said. "I know he's comfortable if I'm starting. I'm comfortable if he's starting. We just feed off each other."
UB football coach Lance Leopold talks about how players looked after the Bulls first preseason scrimmage. pic.twitter.com/6tdW5iq4Zp
— John Hickey (@jhickeyBN) August 9, 2018
- Quarterback Tyree Jackson was quite sharp, especially on the first drive. His favorite target was the team's No. 1 receiver, Anthony Johnson, who caught the 20-yard touchdown that capped off the starters' first on-field appearance. Jackson also threw a 30-yard touchdown to a wide-open Isaiah King and a 15-yard slant touchdown to Tito Overton.
- The second-team offense, led by sophomore Kyle Vantrease, had some difficulty stringing plays together. They were forced to punt after getting only one first down on each of their first two drives. Safety Ashton White snagged an interception on the fourth drive of the day off third-string quarterback Dominic Johnson.
- Leipold said he was particularly pleased with the play of the team's young receivers, highlighting Overton and redshirt freshmen King, Charlie Jones and Rodney Scott III.
- UB added a fourth offensive lineman to its 2019 recruiting class on Wednesday night. Anthony Laudicina, a 6-foot-6 and 280-pound tackle from Radnor High School and Wayne, Pa., announced his verbal commitment on Twitter. "I chose UB because it is a great combination of athletics and academics," he said Thursday. "I also want to be a part of this program because it is on the rise. I can see myself doing great things here along with my teammates."
— Anthony Laudicina (@anthony_L87) August 8, 2018