Broncos have infantry to help Manning balance attack

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchangeJune 4, 2013

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Despite the presence of three 1,000-yard receivers from last season -- including perennial 100-catch man Wes Welker -- the Denver Broncos do indeed plan to run the football from time to time. And they'll probably do it with multiple running backs, as has often been the case during John Fox's head coaching career.
It's not a matter of whether the Broncos will run. It's all about with whom the Broncos will choose to run.
The primary two running backs last season, Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, haven't been fully available during organized team activities. McGahee hasn't been on hand for the voluntary sessions at all, while Moreno has been limited as he completes recovery from a minor knee procedure and wasn't cleared for any work in the team periods of practice until Monday.
That left 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball to handle much of the workload -- which carried the obvious benefit of getting extra work with Peyton Manning, deepening the trust the 16-season veteran has in his much younger teammates. Manning implores them to ask questions of him away from the field; by his reasoning, if they doesn't ask questions, he assumes they know what they're doing.
And when they don't?
"He doesn't yell, but it's like cutting you with a butter knife," said Hillman. "It's not loud. It's just like, 'aaaaah.' But it's a good thing that you have somebody like that that's your quarterback."
The offense is so complex that Hillman says he's still asking questions of Manning, 13 months after his first practice. Ball has peppered Manning with queries -- at the quarterback's request -- and will continue to do so in the future.
"The biggest adjustment from him is all the audibles that he makes because he's capable of changing the play at the line of scrimmage," Ball said. "You've got to know not only what the running back's route is on a play, if he's spread out and empty on a play, he can change the route from the first routes to the second routes. So you've got to know basically everyone's route on every play. That's pretty much what we've been hitting on. Little details from there."
Hillman bulked up from around 175 pounds at the end of the 2012 season to the 190s this offseason. Now, he must find a way to keep it on -- and play as fast at that weight as he did at 180 pounds, where he spent much of his rookie season.
"I feel a lot more explosive and I feel like this is going to be a good thing," Hillman said.
Just as crucial for Hillman has been the manner in which he's running. With deeper knowledge of the system, he's thinking less. He's also following the persistent message of running backs coach Eric Studesville, who preaches a one-cut-and-go style from his players.
"I feel a lot more comfortable this year," Hillman said. "I feel like I came into camp -- it's a little different when you're going into OTAs and not knowing anything, rather than coming in the second year, and you're familiar with the terms and how things read and how things work. I feel like it's a lot easier now."
As Ball and Hillman master those details, they have a chance to stake their claim in a position group that could be the most competitive on the roster. Two other running backs, Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson, also have regular-season experience.
The wild card among the Broncos' backs is Jacob Hester, who the Broncos signed last season after he was cut by the Chargers. Hester played in the last three regular-season games and the playoff loss to Baltimore, and although he doesn't figure in the equation to be the primary running back, his versatility could make him an ideal candidate to provide depth.
Hester lined up at fullback and tailback last season, but has taken on an expanded role during organized team activities.
"It's hard to find guys like that. To be able to play halfback, fullback -- we throw him on the wing every once in a while; we can spread him out," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "It's been a big point of emphasis this offseason to figure out how we get him on the field and use him a little more, whether he's playing tailback, fullback, an F-tight end and H-back. We're going to try to use him as many ways as possible."
That's music to the ears of Hester, who never quite found his niche in San Diego's offense during his four-plus seasons there, but handled such a diverse role at LSU.
"When I was in college with (then-LSU offensive coordinator) Jimbo Fisher, the same kind of thing, I was always moved around. I played receiver, tight end, running back, fullback, even safety a little bit," Hester said. "So, it's something I've done before, something I'm comfortable with. I love the challenge of having to learn it all and do it all. It makes you better because you really learn the whole offense, not just your position."
If he learns all that, he'll be on the same page with Manning, and enhance his chances of making the 53-man roster. Meanwhile, McGahee continues to bypass OTAs, and by standing still, he could find himself behind upon his return.