When the Fort Hays State University Tigers take the field each Saturday, their opponents are well aware of who stands in the backfield by now. Head coach Chris Brown and the entire Tigers’ staff even made it clear before the season they intended to run the ball in high volumes.
Senior left tackle Matt Erbert said this squad was “tailored to run the football first.” But what the two-headed monster of Treveon Albert and Shaquille Cooper has yet to catch a team off guard, or be stopped.
The duo of Cooper and Albert leads the seventh-ranked rushing attack in the country, totaling 283.4 yards per game in the first five games of 2015. Cooper boosted onto the scene with a 263-yard performance against Northeastern State — he broke off a 93-yard run to give the Tigers the lead, the second longest rush in Division II this year.
Cooper’s 135.8 yards per game is the only better average in the MIAA than Albert’s 122 yards-per-game average. The past three games have seen the workload put onto the senior quarterback as defenses have keyed in on Cooper, limiting him to 57, 104 and 92 yards, respectively. In that same span, Albert has broke out with games of 144, 107 and, most recently, a career-high 207 yards on the ground.
The improvement in the run game starts with the versatility of Albert and his improvement in the option. In 2014, the Tigers ranked sixth in the MIAA with 1,736 yards rushing in 11 games.
Through five games this season, the Tigers have rushed for a league-high 1,417 yards — Fort Hays ranks seventh in the nation in rushing offense — and have improved their yards-per-carry average by two yards from one year ago to 6.1. Albert’s 8.13 yards per carry ranked fifth in the nation.
“Treveon’s doing a real good job of getting his reads, that’s a big part of it,” Brown said. “Shaq does a good job of finding the hole and hitting it. I think our offensive line has done a great job of taking care of the first level. I think now we’ve gotta work on getting to the next level so we can have a few more big runs, but I think it’s coming along each week.”
The success in the running game is not as simple as having a talented backfield. The five starters on the Tigers’ offensive line combine for 73 starts. Seniors occupy three of the line’s starting positions — left tackle, center and right tackle. Sophomore Travis Talley has held place for two games while Chico Feltenberger, who has 13 starts at left guard, sat with an ankle injury. Luke Edney, the Tigers’ right tackle, said much of the improvement comes with an improved mentality from new offensive coordinator Jeff Bryant.
“I’m happy with the changes that Coach Bryant has made and the style he has me playing in. I’m very happy, and I see it across the whole line in the results we’re getting out there as a whole team,” Edney said. “We’ve all changed a bit from how we used to play to how we play now and I think it’s paid off. He’s brought in a different mindset. We have a different attitude this year than we had in the previous years. I think it’s showing at the field.”
For the offensive line that has allowed the fewest sacks and tackles for loss in the MIAA, the message is simple. They love the guys behind them and don’t want to see them get hit.
“I think the O-line has a strong connection with all of the running backs,” Edney said. “Personally, we like them. All of our running backs and our quarterback, they’re good men. We like to protect for them. We don’t like to see them get hit so we do our best, no matter who it is, to protect them.
Edney added: “Every time we have to pick (Treveon) off the field, we die a little inside. It hurts us to see him have to get hit because he’s such a good player. He’s one of our best assets on the offense.”
The oil that makes the machine run comes with the Tigers’ wideouts, a group with a varying levels of experience. Just as much as he preaches making catches, receivers coach Al McCray stresses the importance of his group to hold blocks on the outside and downfield, giving the space to the likes of Cooper and Albert to break off a long run.
“Coach McCray drives that through our head every day, every second of practice,” senior receiver Andrew Flory said. “With Shaq and Treveon in the backfield, at any point in time they can break and they’re looking for our blocks down the field to get them to the end zone.”
Sophomore receiver Tyler Bacon knows from experience the wear blocking puts on opposing defensive backs on a physical and mental standpoint.
“When you’re blocking like that, it get in the DB’s heads,” Bacon said. “It gets them out of their coverages so when it’s time to pass, they’re thinking, ‘Is he gonna block or is he gonna run a route on me?’ It frustrates them, so it’s a big thing.”
Coming into the season, the Tigers were poised to deploy No. 1 running back Kenneth Iheme, a junior, and No. 2 Malik Thomas, a redshirt freshman, with Albert and Cooper. An ankle injury prevent Iheme’s season from ever beginning while Thomas suffered a torn ACL in the first quarter of the Tigers’ first game.
Iheme was the team’s second leading rusher last season and racked up more than 100 yards twice in the final span of the season. Thomas is a versatile runner with speed and power to any parts of the line of scrimmage while both possess solid hands in the passing game, as well. Depth comes in when the Tigers start to implement redshirt freshman Christian Sanders in the coming years with Charles Tigner, a speedy back who was redshirted as a freshman this season.
While Thomas and Iheme will be back on redshirts with Cooper only being a sophomore, Brown see’s more excitement in the future than worry from what happened in the past.
“I knew we still had Shaq and I knew we still had Derek Campbell,” Brown said. “Those two are very talented kids. What you worry now is running one of them too much and getting injured. … You always want three or four backs going into a season because things happen. They just happened earlier for us. … That’s good for the future of this program.”