Lyle McCombs spent a good portion of preseason training camp dealing with questions about whether his body could withstand a season’s worth of pounding.
He understood it came with the territory of being a tailback listed as 5-foot-8 and a very generous 172 pounds.
“Soaking wet,” says McCombs, who is probably an inch shorter and seven pounds lighter.
Those queries ended rather quickly. McCombs not only proved he could handle a full workload and bounce up from every big tackle, but remain productive as the carries mounted.
Last week, McCombs became the second freshman and 14th runner to top 1,000 yards in a season. He also leads the Big East in rushing yardage (1,014) and carries (234) heading into the Huskies penultimate regular season game with Rutgers on Saturday at Rentschler Field (noon, ESPN2).
“A thousand yards means everything,” McCombs said Tuesday. “That’s what a running back wants to see, as far as numbers go, is 100-yard games and 1,000-yard seasons. That’s usually the goal, and I’m happy I achieved that, especially as a freshman. But we need more wins.”
Back in training camp, McCombs was expected to share the running duties with senior D.J. Shoemate, a converted fullback with the ideal frame in a UConn version of the thunder and lightning attack.
Injuries ended Shoemate’s season after one game, and McCombs was so far ahead of the Huskies’ other tailbacks that none has received more the two carries in a game since backup Jonathan Jean-Louis had five against Fordham in the season-opener.
McCombs has topped 100 yards in six of 10 games, his most impressive days in wins over South Florida (32 carries, 130 yards) and Syracuse (24-152, one touchdown).
His 10 carries and 33 yards against Louisville last week was a season low, partly because the Huskies were forced to change the game plan when they fell behind by 14 points in the first quarter.
Otherwise, McCombs has endeared himself to the UConn coaching staff with his quickness, toughness and understanding of the offense.
“He does other things, well, He can catch the ball well, he’s very good in protection and knows who to block, what the protections are,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “This has been a real god first year for Lyle. He has a chance to improve on this, and we’re going to need him to. He just has to keep going.”
Looking ahead, McCombs knows he needs to add weight and get stronger in the weight room. While he excels at making would-be tacklers miss, he rarely breaks a tackle and is often down on the initial hit.
McCombs would also like to take on more of a leadership role.
“I think I need to be more vocal,” McCombs said. “I’m a young guy and taking sort of an unexpected role. So I’m out here trying to do my job. But I need to do more than that with the role I play in the offense. That’s more of a vocal leadership.”