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Think Big: Running backs focus on getting better
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Updated: Thursday 04/09/2012 15:50:56 (ET)
by UNDsports.com
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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Running backs coach Danny Freund has a bunch of "lunch-pail" type players in his unit that come to work hard everyday. Humility is also a characteristic trait found in this group.

You would never know one of them is a reigning first team all-conference performer or another was a Great West Freshman of the Year honoree by watching them work.

And, the player who is currently third on the depth chart may be too good to keep off the field. 

"These guys are a lot of fun to coach because of the way they work," Freund said. "How do they become better football players? That is one of the things they have really been focused on this spring - finishing runs, giving great effort and becoming smarter football players."

The all-conference performer in the running backs stable is junior Jake Miller (Bismarck, N.D.), who burst onto the scene on UND's biggest stage last season as the Sioux nearly pulled off the upset at FBS foe Fresno State. He rushed 21 times for 145 yards and three touchdowns. One of those scores was a 70-yard jaunt.

Miller finished the season with 942 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns en route to earning first team All-Great West honors. He was also the first player in league history to garner three consecutive GWC Player of the Week accolades.

"You'd never know Jake had the season he did by the way he has come back to work," Freund said. "He almost got 1,000 yards last season and I think he'll get to that mark this year."

The veteran of the group is senior Mitch Sutton (Plover, Wis.). After earning 2009 Great West Freshman of the Year honors, Sutton has battled through a couple of injury-plagued seasons in 2010 and 2011.  He's back in spring drills poised to regain the form that will provide a formidable one-two punch with Miller as the team embarks on its first season in the Big Sky Conference.

Sophomore Jer Garman (Marion, Iowa) was forced to play as a true freshman in 2011 and showed signs of why he was so highly recruited out of Linn-Mar High School. He averaged over four yards per carry (270 yards on 59 carries) and scored his first two career touchdowns in the blowout win over Black Hills State.

"Jer has the most potential to make the biggest leap from year one to year two," Freund said. "Things are slowing down for him and he is making big strides this spring. It is going to be hard to keep him off the field."

Garman had the only touchdown for the offense in the first scrimmage of the spring last Saturday. He split most of the carries with redshirt freshman P.J. Sparks (Glendale, Ariz.) and classmate Adam Shaugabay (Warroad, Minn.).

Sparks had the most carries out of the running back group, toting the rock nine times for 24 yards, including a 10-yard carry.

"P.J. is eager to get on the field and help out anyway he can," Freund said. "For him, just learning the game last year, he has a better understanding of our blocking schemes aftering being in (the offense) for a  year. He is a kid who we will look for to really step up in these scrimmages."

Shaugabay accumulated the most yardage on the offensive side of the ball, accounting for 45 yards on four carries and a 15-yard reception. He had carries of 10 and 15 yards as well.

"Adam could play running back or fullback for us," Freund said. "He is a physical kid and our most violent runner. He is going to find his way onto the field because of the way he works."

The man holding down the top spot at fullback is senior Ethan Magstadt (Maple Grove, Minn.). "Ethan is one of our most versatile players," Freund said. "He came in as a running back, so he could even see some time there, but he is going to be valuable to us as a lead blocker and catching the ball out of the backfield."

The Sioux are without the services of Spencer Bickel (Minot, N.D.) this spring, but he is expected to return for fall camp. Bickel is one of the top special teams contributors on the team is also a back up running back.

Here is a breakdown of the six running backs/fullbacks in spring practices.

Seniors: 2
Juniors: 1
Sophomores: 2
Freshmen: 1

2 Jer Garman, So. - 59 carries, 270 yards, 2 TDs, 3 receptions, 12 yards
3 Jake Miller, Jr. - 196 carries, 942 yards, 13 TDs, 16 receptions, 142  yards, 1 TD
27 P.J. Sparks, RFr. - Redshirted
28 Mitch Sutton, Sr. - 76 carries, 290 yards, four receptions, 31 yards
33 Ethan Magstadt, Sr. - four receptions, 22 yards
39 Adam Shaugabay, So. - 12 carries, 62 yards, 1 TD

Practice Notes: Head coach Chris Mussman applauded the effort of the defense following Monday's practice, saying their effort is what each unit should strive to give at every practice ... Sensing and witnessing some sluggishness out of his players, the fifth-year head coach added a little intensity to the workout as he decided to make the 11-on-11 work during the middle of practice a live session ... The offense managed a few chunk plays on nice runs from P.J. Sparks (Glendale, Ariz.) and Jer Garman (Marion, Iowa), but the defense won the overall session ... The practice concluded with some more red-zone work ... Garman scored on a 10-yard jaunt following a nice cutback and Marcus Hendrickson (Perham, Minn.) used his legs to also score on a 10-yard run ... The defense did a nice job defending the pass in the session as safeties Erik Mersereau (Port Washington, Wis.) and B.J. Fafita (Lawndale, Calif.) were both in on pass breakups preventing touchdowns ... The team will return to work on Wednesday afternoon at 3:45 p.m. 
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