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Backs to the Wall
Jeffri Chadiha
August 14, 2006
A surprise rookie makes a run past Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne for the Broncos' tailback job
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August 14, 2006

Backs To The Wall

A surprise rookie makes a run past Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne for the Broncos' tailback job

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TATUM BELL'S eyes widened when he saw the hole open in front of him. It was only a morning practice on the fourth day of Broncos camp last week, but Bell wanted to prove himself in this goal line drill. The 2004 second-round pick out of Oklahoma State is known more for speed than for toughness, and his mission in camp is to change that perception. But when Bell hit the opening, two defenders slammed into him at the three-yard line, and the ball popped loose. The 5'11", 213-pound back hung his head for a moment, knowing he'd lost a little more ground in the competition to become Denver's starting tailback.

At lunch Bell was still thinking about that fumble. "I was having a good practice if you discount that play," he said. Big if. Before minicamp in the spring, coach Mike Shanahan had told him he has to avoid going down on first contact before he can be more than a change-of-pace back in a Broncos system that has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in all but one season since 1995. In response Bell added six pounds and is working at fighting through arm tackles. But the extra effort might not even be enough to lift Bell--who gained 921 yards on 173 carries last year--into a starting role.

Entering camp, he was second on the depth chart behind Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner who was a first-round bust in five seasons as a straight-ahead power back with the Giants. The 5'10", 245-pound Dayne signed with Denver in 2005 and showed flashes of the vision and slashing running ability needed to thrive in the Broncos' zone-blocking scheme, a system similar to the one he played in at Wisconsin, where he became college football's alltime leading rusher. While mired on the bench in New York, he envied the Broncos backs. "I used to think about what I could do in this system," says Dayne, who signed a three-year, $3.3 million deal shortly after Denver released Mike Anderson, its leading rusher in 2005, in a salary-cap move. "I just wanted to play here. But when they let Mike go, I knew I had a chance."

But Bell's and Dayne's chances might be dwindling. On Monday, Shanahan surprised everyone by elevating a rookie free agent, 6-foot, 215-pound Mike Bell of Arizona, to the No. 1 spot. While the coach says depth-chart listings "could change from day to day or week to week," it's clear he's looking for someone to take firm control of the job--and Mike Bell quickly impressed coaches with his one-cut-and-go running style. Like Dayne, he played in a zone-blocking system in college.

Mike Bell lived in Denver until he was 10, idolizing Terrell Davis--a sixth-round draft pick whom Shanahan turned into a star. Projected as a middle-rounder, he dropped off NFL draft boards after disappointing performances in predraft workouts. But in the first week of camp he ran more aggressively than Dayne and Tatum Bell (no relation), which earned him the right to start the Broncos' first preseason game this Friday night at Detroit. "I was spinning yesterday when [the coaches] told me," he said. "Ron and Tatum are great backs. They're going to be pushing, and I'm going to be pushing."

That may be Shanahan's ultimate goal. On Monday he was asked what the veterans had to do to supplant the rookie. "You have to be better than the other guy," the coach said. "It's not very complex."