William and Mary has at least three quality running backs, but the converted quarterback who's played the position for only a year appears to be separating himself from the pack.
Mikal Abdul-Saboor has ripped off three consecutive 100-yard games and is the leading rusher as the Tribe rests and prepares for the gauntlet of the final two months.
"I think this year I have a lot more confidence," Abdul-Saboor said after his 108-yard effort against Rhode Island last week. "I played sparingly last year. But in the offseason, I really looked at a lot of film. That's something that really prepared me for this year. I just have confidence in myself, confidence in the linemen up front, not really second-guessing myself a lot. I think that's really helping me be successful so far."
Abdul-Saboor is part of a three-back rotation through one-third of the season, along with Keith McBride and Kendell Anderson. Add shifty Jarrell Cooper (Woodside) for a change of pace, and W&M has four backs with which it's comfortable.
But Abdul-Saboor's carries have increased recently, a reflection of his productivity and progress. He had a career-high 26 carries against Rhody, giving him 58 for the season. That's nearly as many as he had all of last season (69) as a reserve running back in his first year at the position.
"We're four games deep, we've been rotating guys pretty consistently," Tribe running backs coach Chris Barclay said. "I feel like they've all had chances to do some things. At this point, there's not going to be as much of a rotation. I really think that Abdul-Saboor is playing pretty well right now and I think he may be ready to take that next step, as far as being able to carry more of a load offensively."
Abdul-Saboor was a standout high school quarterback in Alpharetta, Ga., and worked as the scout team QB as a freshman. The coaches moved him to running back for his redshirt freshman season, when he rushed for 242 yards in part-time duty.
Barclay saw promise and advised Abdul-Saboor to shed a few pounds and to be a more diligent student of the game, in order to make up for some of his inexperience at the position. Abdul-Saboor took the advice to heart, dropping 10 pounds — he's now 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds — and re-shaping his body a bit. Film study and practice repetitions began to flatten the learning curve.
"There's still some things that are brand new to him, that most running backs who have been playing the game for a while would understand," said Barclay, an All-ACC running back and Player of the Year at Wake Forest. "That's what excites you as a coach is to know that he's still in the infancy of his growth as a running back, but he's shown a lot of promise already. Every week he's getting better and better."
A spring and summer in new coordinator Kevin Rogers' offensive scheme helped all of the backs.
"I definitely think there's a better understanding of the run game this year," Abdul-Saboor said. "We have an experienced offensive line doing a great job. All the backs, we got to work in the spring and really understand the offense. Coming into the fall, the reads are a lot easier than last year. We're seeing things quicker."
Barclay said that the entire running back corps committed to more film study, of themselves and opponents.
"Not to say that the kids did not study film last year," Barclay said, "but when you're a year older, a year more experienced, I think it really helps to self-scout and see what mistakes you made last year."
All four of the Tribe backs have different qualities. Abdul-Saboor is a mix of speed and power, with good hands and vision.
"I think he's just getting more and more comfortable seeing things," Tribe head coach Jimmye Laycock said. "He has great vision. That's the biggest thing that Mikal does, he can really see things. He can make reads, make cuts."
McBride, a former high school sprinter, is the fastest of the group in a 220-pound package. Anderson, a redshirt freshman, has the best hands of the group — Barclay said he could be a wide receiver — and is savvier than most players his age. Cooper has the best vision, Barclay said, is deceptively strong and productive on the edge and in space.
Barclay's non-negotiables for running backs are ball security; carrying out assignments without freelancing; and fulfilling obligations off the field.
Abdul-Saboor ran afoul of the rules before the season opener at West Virginia and remained home. When he fumbled versus Hampton in the home opener, that earned a place on the sideline for a stretch while the other backs produced. He has made amends since.
Dividing carries among so many backs is a nice problem, Barclay said, but Abdul-Saboor's progress reduces the backfield shuffling.
"I think we'll try to lean on him a little bit more, but we'll still monitor it closely," Barclay said. "It's a long season and we don't want to beat him into the ground, and obviously, we have other options."
Now, Abdul-Saboor must learn to take care of himself and handle the responsibilities, physically and mentally, as an every-down back.
"I'm not used to it, but I feel like I'm in pretty good condition," he said. "However (many) carries I get every game, I think I'll be able to handle the load."
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