Better late than never, Nate Tago’s time to run as the lead dog has finally arrived on the eve of his senior season.
After three solid yet perhaps unremarkable seasons as a Portland State running back, Tago has ascended to the top of the depth chart for Saturday’s season opener against Division II Central Washington at Providence Park (2:30 p.m., KEX 1190 AM).
Nine yards short of 1,000 career rushing yards, Tago has one 100-yard game to his credit, a 106-yard outing against UC Davis in 2014.
Given enough carries, he could surpass his single game high for most rushing yards against CWU in his 33rd career appearance for the Vikings.
Without a doubt, his opportunity to carry the ball on a regular basis for PSU is something Tago has longed for since signing with Portland State out of Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. in 2013.
Tago was a pleasant surprise as a freshman in 2013, totaling 216 rushing yards and finishing third in the Big Sky in kickoff returns (24.2 yards per return) to earn honorable mention All-Big-Sky.
“He came in and lit it up early as a freshman, but then had to fight through some injuries,” Portland State coach Bruce Barnum said Tuesday on the weekly Big Sky teleconference. “He has matured. I like where he is at right now mentally.”
Tago has carried the ball more than 15 times just once in his career, the aforementioned home win over UC Davis two years ago when he registered 26 rushing attempts.
“He is not the type of back to take over a game, but he will make you earn your day,” Barnum said. “He’s a hard runner. He is not going to run around you. On fourth and inches, I want Nate in the backfield. Even if you don’t block anybody, he might still win that down.”
Possessing excellent size and power for a FCS running back, Tago has lost only 26 rushing yards on 215 career rushing attempts, an eye-opening achievement.
“Nate Tago should be at a point in his career where he can take over a game,” Barnum said. “He has experience and durability, and he knows the offense well. He has always been a physical, tough runner. I think he is ready to be great. He has shown flashes.”
In a minor surprise, senior Paris Penn is listed as Portland State No. 2 running back behind Tago, although Barnum still intends to utilize Penn from the utility quarterback role he carved out for the Portland native and Grant High School graduate last fall after he was beaten out by Alex Kuresa for the starting QB job.
Expect Penn to continue lining up at quarterback in the Wildcat formation as well as slot receiver and running back depending on the situation. Possessing excellent speed, Penn rushed 47 times for 209 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and caught 11 passes for 184 yards (16.7 ypr) in 2015 when he was finally able to stay relatively healthy for an entire season for the first time in his career.
“He will still play that Utility Quarterback, Wildcat Quarterback,” Barnum said. “He will also play some slot receiver in some sets. Now he is coming out of the backfield as well. Coaching is easy. You let the guys that are fun to watch touch the football. Paris finally had an injury free year last year and. Knock on wood, he is in great shape right now. I just have to find different ways to get him the football. He has adjusted well to the backfield. He can run by our defense. I’m hoping he can run by some of the opponents.”
Tago and Penn are two of five PSU rushers that gained more than 100 yards in 2015. Leading rusher David Jones (1,127 yards on 180 carries) graduated and Steven Long and Rey Vega (Southern Oregon) transferred, leaving Kuresa (755 yards on 150 attempts), possibly the top dual threat quarterback in the Big Sky Conference, Tago and Penn to handle the bulk of the rushing load in 2016 unless somebody else emerges.
Redshirt freshmen Carlos Martin, currently fourth on the depth chart, and Jesuit High product Chase Morrison (sidelined for 2016 season with Achilles heel injury suffered in off-season) represent the future at running back for Portland State.
RUNNING BACK DEPTH CHART (CWU game)
Nate Tago (Sr.)
Paris Penn (Sr.)
Mitchell Thompson (Jr.)
Carlos Martin (RFr.)
Zach Floyd (Jr.)
Za’Quan Summers (Jr.)