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PSU shoots for even better results with running game

Vikings open play in Big Sky hoping to hit some home runs
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Cory McCaffrey eyes another big season for himself and the Portland State run game. The Vikings open Big Sky Conference play Saturday at 5 p.m. against Northern Arizona at Jeld-Wen Field.

Last season, Portland State’s ground attack was the toast of the Park Blocks. The Vikings led the Big Sky Conference in rushing with 2,236 yards (203.3 per game), 19 yards shy of the school record. This season, the Vikings’ stable of running backs may be even stronger. Cory McCaffrey and Willie Griffin are returning for their senior season, and PSU has added Shaquille Richard, a true freshman with a world of potential. “We’ve already set a bar,” McCaffrey says. “We know what we can do. The goal is just surpassing that.” As strong of a group of backs as the Vikings have, they lack a bruiser that can take hit after hit and remain effective. To keep a home-run threat alive on every play, the Vikings will rotate tailbacks in and out of games as often as they need to. “If you want to be a home-run hitting offense, then you’ve got to keep guys fresh,” Vikings coach Nigel Burton says. “We have guys who are home-run hitters, but if you give them the ball 30 times they may wear down.” As the first option out of the backfield for the Vikings, McCaffrey knows what it takes to pile up big yards. At Sisters High, he became the most prolific running back in Oregon high school history, rushing for a career total of 8,460 yards. When McCaffrey got to Portland State, though, he was shoehorned into being a receiver because the Vikings’ offense — then the pass-oriented run-and-shoot —used only one back, more of a fullback type who would mostly block on pass plays. In his first year returning to the backfield last season, McCaffrey was sensational. He rushed 231 times for 1,287 yards and 10 touchdowns. In Portland State’s romp of Southern Oregon in the season opener, McCaffrey had 13 carries for 69 yards and three TDs. “It’s been a huge buildup from day one when I got here and I was playing receiver until now,” McCaffrey says. “I know what this offense can do, and I know what I can do, what I’m capable of.” Small at 5-9 and 185 pounds, but blessed with very good speed, McCaffrey’s strength is his vision and ability to make impossible cuts. “A lot of what Cory brings to the table is innate,” running backs coach John Ely says. “He has a great feel, he has great vision, and he’s able to stop and start and change directions like nobody I’ve seen.” Richard also relies heavily on both vision and speed. The 5-8, 175-pounder rushed for 1,854 yards and 18 TDs as a senior at Junipero Serra High in Hawthorne, Calif. Against Southern Oregon, Richard proved that even as a true freshman, he has the ability to make an impact for the Vikings. He led Portland State in rushing, netting 89 yards on 16 carries. “Shaquille is the baby of the group,” Ely says. “He’s a guy who we’re trying to get up to speed of college football. He’s fresh out of high school but has shown some great signs of being that home-run hitter.” Because of his size, pass protection is one of the things Richard needs to work on the most if he wants to see more snaps. “In high school, we couldn’t cut (block),” Richard says. “So I had to learn to stick my nose in people and block the hard way. But we can cut now, so I try to cut here, cut there and then block high the next time. It is something that I need to work on.” When healthy last season, Griffin was a perfect changeup to McCaffrey. The 5-8, 195-pounder showed an ability to run between the tackles and grind out yards. On 67 carries in 2010, Griffin gained 204 yards and scored two touchdowns. His hard-nosed running style made it difficult for him to last, though. He was sidelined with an ankle injury for the last three games of 2010. He also missed this year’s SOU game because of an ankle sprain. Griffin’s ankle is close to being healthy going into the Vikings’ home game against Northern Arizona (5 p.m. Saturday, Jeld-Wen Field), but it is a slow process. “I’m coming along pretty well,” Griffin says. “Could be better.” Burton is hoping Griffin returns to health so the running back can play his part in making the Vikings’ backfield even better than it was last season. “We know what Willie is capable of,” Burton says. “He’s just been bitten by the injury bug. He really gutted it out last year, and I’m proud of him. Now it’s, ‘Hey, it’s your last year, let’s make the most of it.’ ”