If going into a regular season an NFL team stated they were entering the year with a former Division III back and former Division II product as their top two rushers, most fans would call that NFL team crazy. But those fans would also be unfamiliar with the capabilities of Buffalo's Fred Jackson and Xavier Omon.
The two backs will spell the Bills ground game for the first three weeks of the season while Marshawn Lynch is out on suspension, and Buffalo's coaching staff could not feel any more comfortable with their rushing attack than they do for kickoff tonight.
Jackson, a former Coe College grad, is a known NFL commodity. In fact in his last start in place of an injured Marshawn Lynch in Buffalo's 2008 season finale he rushed for 136 yards on 27 carries against the same New England defense he'll face tonight. And he did it on a day that was so windswept at Ralph Wilson Stadium that the throwing the ball wasn't an option. The Patriots defense knew the run was coming and Jackson still averaged five yards a carry.
Bills head coach Dick Jauron considers Jackson a rare luxury to have at his disposal with Lynch not an option.
"You never want to lose a player like Marshawn (Lynch)," said Jauron. "But because of Fred's production in the past you do have a better feeling. You certainly wouldn't feel good if you didn't have him around. You've seen (Jackson) do it on Sunday in this league and against different teams and he looks good doing it so you know he can and you know he believes he can and our offense believes in him. We're really glad we've got Freddy (Jackson)."
Omon, though projected to make the active roster, was not expected to be so impressive that he'd make veteran Dominic Rhodes expendable.
"Xavier has been running like he's been running all year in our OTAs and our preseason," said Jauron. "He's run well, found the holes, stayed low, showed power, moved some people. He's made some people miss. I've been really pleased with Xavier Omon."
For Jackson there were several rungs on the ladder to climb to get to the NFL. After going undrafted and then not getting signed as an undrafted free agent Jackson played in the U.S. Indoor League for Sioux City. That was followed by an opportunity to play in NFL Europe before landing a job on Buffalo's roster.
Now poised to be the team's opening day starter at running back on national TV, Jackson understands how his story can be inspirational for others.
"It's definitely something to get excited about," said Jackson. "I think it just shows that hard work and determination can get you to where you want to be. I've talked to many kids at schools about just working hard and having a goal and working to get there. Guys from little colleges can get to where they want to be."
No one on Buffalo's roster knows that better than the man sitting behind Jackson on the depth chart.
Omon, a product of Division II national power Northwest Missouri St., was just the third player in college football history to rush for over 7,000 yards in a college career. His 98 total touchdowns were also eye popping. Still, when college prospects have such accomplishments at lower levels of football it still gives scouts pause.
Entering his first NFL offseason this past winter, Omon was disappointed that he had all of four carries in his rookie campaign. He was determined to earn more time on the field in 2009.
"My expectations were to play and I talked about it with coach (Eric Studesville) in the offseason," said Omon in reference to his running backs coach. "He told me, 'Do whatever you can. You've got to get on the field this season.' And that was my goal all offseason to get on the field. That doesn't just mean special teams. I'm happy to do special teams, but I want to get on the field as a running back too and get some carries. Hopefully with only two running backs I'll get some carries in this game."
Omon shed 10 pounds from his frame and the difference was dramatic. The thickly built back was quicker through the hole and more elusive in open space through the preseason.
"Being quicker when you see it and you can actually get through there, unlike last year when I would see it and I wasn't fast enough to get through there," said Omon. "This year I feel like being able to see it and get through there makes a big difference."
More importantly Omon made sure to have the nuances of the game mastered like blitz pickup, chip assignments and pass routes.
"I know I'm ready to do it," said Omon. "I've been waiting for this opportunity for a long time and it's finally here so I have to take advantage of it."
Having confidence in a young player is one thing, but to have so much that a staff feel comfortable releasing a proven veteran like Rhodes knowing Marshawn Lynch will not be available for the first three games was a big statement about what the Bills believe Omon can do.
"I feel it says a lot," said Omon. "Hopefully it says that they're trusting me and that they're going to give me an opportunity to prove myself and hopefully it shows that I worked hard in the offseason and that I've earned this opportunity and can do something with it. All I can do is work hard and do what I can to try to help this team get a 'W.'"