Taquan Mizzell looks to smoke past competition in Virginia backfield

Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell has been a role player for the Hoos, but this spring he has had to do a different type of learning.

And that has been a bit of an adjustment.

Not only will he be relied upon much more in the running game, he and his teammates have had to get used to a different scheme that emphasizes more downhill running and zone blocking up front, in addition to working with new position coach Chris Beatty.

Then there is his slightly bigger body. Mizzell is up to 202 pounds, so he is working on maintaining his speed with more weight. On top of all that, Mizzell wants to build up his flexibility and endurance so he will stay fresh into the fourth quarter with the added touches he expects to get.

Despite everything on his plate, Mizzell says he is feeling extremely confident about his expanded role headed into 2015.

“It started off a little slow. I had to get used to things, but now I’m feeling confident in my game, real confident in my teammates,” Mizzell said in a recent phone interview. “Our new running backs coach is teaching me a lot.

“Just the small stuff, getting vertical as soon as possible, ball-security drills, things that running backs already know but lose track of sometimes, just putting it all together and making me a way better running back.”

There is little doubt the spotlight will be on Mizzell this season now that he is the leader at the position. One of the most ballyhooed players to sign at Virginia, Mizzell has not yet had the breakout season many anticipated. He was hurt his freshman year. Last season he was used extensively as a receiver out of the backfield, finishing second on the team with 39 receptions. He only had 64 carries for 280 yards behind Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd.

But now that Parks and Shepherd are gone, Mizzell is the most experienced option in a backfield that is lacking depth. He must start playing up to the potential that wowed coaches on the recruiting trail and earned him the nickname, “Smoke.”

“He’s a guy that everybody wants to see that breakaway speed,” coach Mike London said recently. “When you call yourself 'Smoke,' you’ve got to bring it, too. We now have the benefit of him having matured and watching guys like Kevin Parks. That has really helped him because now he’s a smarter football player.

“I know he’s excited. He’s another guy walking around with a spring in his step because he’s played in big games and now he’s got an opportunity his junior year, doing what some guys dream about, so we’ll see what happens.”

Beatty said Daniel Hamm has had the best spring among all the running backs and Mizzell still “has got a ways to go.”

“In the past, because he didn’t have a million carries, he’d run like a high school player who tries to score every time he’s got the ball, so we’re trying to convince him or make him understand the 4-yard run comes first," Beatty said in a phone interview. "Those 4-yard runs become 14-yard runs, then they become 44-yard runs. But you can’t go 44 on every play. We want to make sure we keep the sticks going. That kind of style is a little bit new for him. That’s something we’re harping.”

Though Mizzell is the favorite to start when the season kicks off, Beatty said the competition to win the starting spot remains open. “It’s a competition and it’s going to stay that way until somebody separates,” Beatty said. “Right now, there’s not a clear separation.”

Mizzell has worked with the track team since his freshman year and recently participated in the indoor season. He plans to go back out to track once spring practice ends, hoping to refine his speed, quickness and flexibility to prepare him for the grind of a football season that is to come.

It’s no secret that high expectations trailed Mizell to Charlottesville. He will face high expectations again in 2015, given his name and expanded role. But he says his first two years have allowed him to get to the point he is now.

He’s ready for a breakout season.

“My freshman year it’s hard to judge because I had an injury and my second year I feel I played my role well,” Mizzell said. “This year -- it’s going to be a little different.”