MISSOULA -- Playing running back on the Division I college level is a little like prizefighting.
It looks like a blast to the average guy until that first punch in the mouth.
Senior Jordan Canada has taken a lot of hits and dished out a few as one of the most prolific running backs in Montana history. Ask him about his improved durability in 2013 – he started 12 games after losing time to injuries the previous two seasons – and he’s not afraid to tell it like it is.
“Honestly you’re never really 100 percent,” he said after Thursday morning’s practice inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. “It’s just being able to play through whatever you do have and then take care of yourself so it doesn’t get worse.”
Canada’s mental and physical toughness have spiked each year since arriving in Missoula in 2010.
Montana running backs coach Justin Green credits head coach Mick Delaney for guiding Jordan back when the Californian joined the Griz. Delaney served as running backs coach from 2008-11.
“Jordan has come a long way since then,” marveled Green, who played running back for UM and the Baltimore Ravens. “For a guy to not play his senior year of high school football, to come here and do what he’s done is extremely impressive.
“With his first couple of years here Mick was able to mold him and get him going and I was very fortunate to have a guy who wanted to play football and was just in the process of figuring it all out when I came. I consider myself blessed to have a senior like him.”
Ranking fourth in school history in rushing yards (2,,228) and touchdowns (29), Canada has positioned himself for a stellar senior season. There’s a distinct spring in his step in preseason camp.
No. 26 won’t divulge exactly what he does to get ready for August, but most of it is just good old-fashioned hard work.
“Uphill stuff is always the best as far as once you come down to the flatland, the explosiveness,” said the Griz co-captain. “I definitely do a lot of uphill stuff.
“But the ‘M,’” he added with a smile, “that’s next-level stuff.”
Canada has become such a by-the-book guy that Green holds him up as an example for the rest of Montana’s running backs.
“All of the good tape should be of Jordan doing well on a play,” he said. “That way I can show the young guys how it’s supposed to be done.”
The one area where Canada says he needs to improve is pass catching. That’s ironic considering he has made some of the most dazzling one-handed catches in preseason camp.
“Honestly it’s probably just laziness on my part, just don’t feel like getting two hands up there,” he said. “Coach actually doesn’t like when I do it. I guess it’s out of necessity sometimes, but sometimes laziness.”
Montana’s run game is a work in progress at this point. If the Griz are to match last year’s production – they ranked third in the Big Sky Conference, averaging 185.2 yards per game – then things need to come together with a young offensive line.
One area where Montana has plenty of proven veterans is running back. Canada, Travon Van and John Nguyen have all racked up considerable yards and redshirt freshman Treshawn Favors appears to have the right stuff as well.
“We’re definitely heading in the right direction,” Canada offered. “We’ve got young dudes that are stepping up and making plays and learning the offense real quick. It’s feeling good right now and we’re only going to get better. We’re definitely growing.”
Nguyen has been just as impressive as Canada in preseason camp with his rock-solid physique and rare quickness. Nguyen will likely serve as Canada’s backup to start the season, while Travon Van, who had offseason wrist surgery, lines up more at wide receiver.
Nguyen may also take the field for punt returns, especially early in the season with veteran wideout Ellis Henderson sitting out some of camp with medical issues.
“John is a guy you want in the backfield,” Green said. “He’s smart, he’s fast, he picks up the pass pro.
“For a guy who doesn’t necessarily look the part of a guy who will hit a 245-pound guy in the mouth, he’s definitely a guy who is going to do it.”