BOISE – George Holani didn’t appear to have actual bubble wrap around him during Boise State’s first fall practice on Wednesday.
It just felt like it.
In an effort to keep their star running back healthy this fall, the Broncos have developed a plan to limit the reps he gets – especially live ones – ahead of the Sept. 3 season opener at Oregon State.
For Holani and the Broncos, less hopefully will equal more.
“I think in camp we all don’t need to see George go in live settings right?” Offensive coordinator Tim Plough said. “I think we know George is pretty good.”
Holani rushed for 1,014 yards as a true freshman but has been hit by the injury bug the past two seasons. Knee and soft tissue injuries forced him to miss at least three games in each of the past two seasons.
And the numbers back it up. When Holani is out, the Broncos aren’t nearly as good.
“He’s definitely important to this offense,” running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. “He’s one of those guys who is the ultimate playmaker and goes out there and gives it his all. For us during camp it’s going to be important to manage him and make sure we take care of him and keep him healthy.
“He’s a veteran guy. There’s some reps he doesn’t need to take.”
There’s no way to overstate Holland’s importance to the team. Given his ability – combined with the lack of running back depth behind him – it’s not a stretch to say he’s the most important player to Boise State’s success this year. The outcome of Boise State’s season feels like it could be riding on Holani’s health.
A Holani injury would be devastating to the offense – and even he knows it.
“I’ve definitely talked to the coaches about it and yeah, I think it’s important for me to continue to stay healthy,” Holani admitted. “That’s definitely the key for this season. … I have to trust the coaches, whatever they have for me. I’ll give it my all when I get the opportunity to go out there and take those reps. Whatever reps it is, I’m ready top take them.”
The 5-foot-11, 208-pound Holani might get tackled a few times in situational periods, but the first time the Broncos truly will cut him lose likely will come on Sept. 3.
There’s no real reason to risk an injury before then.
“It’s more about getting him the touches he needs with the skeleton of practice that allows him to get in the rhythm he needs without putting the wear and tear on his body,” Plough said.
The senior got just 19 carries in three games during an injury-filled 2020 season. He then missed the season opener in 2021 against UCF and had just 119 carries in nine games for the year. He still rushed for 569 yards and a touchdown while also adding 14 catches for 169 yards.
But he missed three games and was limited to a certain number of plays in others as the Broncos tried to ease him back into action. And not having a healthy Holani impacted the offense as the Broncos averaged their fewest number of points in more than two decades.
“It was tough last year when you’d get in six or seven games he can only go 30 snaps a game and that clock is ticking,” Plough said. “We have to be in situations where there is no pitch count and he can go and we can get him the ball the 25-plus times we need to to be successful on offense.
“He’s an NFL running back in my opinion but he’s got to do it consistently. … He needs to be available. I think when he’s available he’ll be as good as anybody in the country.”
When Holani wasn’t able to take the ball last year the Broncos still had veterans Cyrus Habibi-Likio and Andrew Van Buren to play. But both are gone and the Broncos have one other running back on the roster who took a carry last season in former walk-on Tyler Crowe.
In the first six games of the season the Broncos rushed for just 85.3 yards per game, mostly while Holani was out or limited. The final six games of the season the Broncos rushed for nearly double that at 155.3 yards per game.
Not coincidentally Hollani rushed for 403 yards in the final four games and had 531 yards from scrimmage. When Holani played, the offense reaped the benefits.
“He’s special,” Bhonapha said. “The sky is the limit for the kid if he can go through a healthy 12 games. When he’s healthy and you put on the film, this dude is a dynamic player who can change a game.”
Holani has 2,118 yards from scrimmage in three yards at an impressive 5.6 yards per attempt.
The numbers prove it: the Broncos badly need a healthy George Holani in 2022. And that’s why they plan to be so careful with him. Protecting Holani in August could mean big things the rest of the season.
Both for Holani and Boise State.
“I just want to go into the season knowing that I’m healthy and ready to go,” Holani said. “Whatever the coaches need me to do, I’m ready to go.”
It won’t be much in August – but the Broncos hope it’s a heck of a lot come September.