And just like that, Washington's two-pronged running attack finds itself down a prong.
On Monday, Coach Sarkisian announced that third-year running back Jesse Callier, a staple in the backfield the previous two years behind workhorse Chris Polk --- who left the program at the end of the 2011 season to enter the NFL --- suffered a season-ending injury to his anterior cruciate ligament in Saturday's 21-12 win against San Diego State. Washington will now feature a rotation in the backfield that will be led by true sophomore Bishop Sankey, pictured above in Washington's win against the Aztecs.
It's the latest in a series of injury-related blows to the Huskies, who suddenly find themselves stretched especially thin at the running back position. Washington must now compensate for the loss of their top-two running backs from the previous season, and have only one running back on the depth chart (in Sankey) who touched the ball in 2011.
Sarkisian made clear in the offseason and preseason that he expected Callier and Sankey to split carries unless one of the players separated himself from the competition, and on his weekly radio show on Monday said that the loss of Callier also meant the loss of "a pretty big part of the gameplan" that the Huskies prepared for San Diego State. No doubt, Callier's injury played no small role in the offense's inability to score a touchdown in the final 47 minutes of Saturday's game.
While Callier's absence will provide sophomore walk-on Willis Wilson and true freshman Erich Wilson II with the opportunity to play more downs than either they or the UW coaching staff envisioned just a few days ago, what seems clear is that Sankey is the biggest potential beneficiary of Callier's injury. Having handled nothing more than situational snaps in relief of Polk in 2011 --- his biggest workload that year came in the Colorado game, when he carried the ball eight times for 71 yards --- Sankey rose to the occasion on Saturday, taking 22 carries for 66 yards and Washington's first score of the year, including one run that he broke off for 20 yards in the second quarter. However, he also showed his youth, coughing up a fumble on Washington's first drive of the second half inside the Aztec 10-yard line. His second-half decline must also be mentioned in the context of the loss of starting RT Ben Riva, who will be out for what Sarkisian called a "significant" amount of time with a broken forearm.
Fortunately, losing Callier, while a blow to a position that has already been hit hard by the injury bug --- Callier will rehab his knee alongside fellow RB Deontae Cooper, who suffered his third ACL tear in as many years during preseason camp --- isn't remotely analogous to losing Polk a year ago. In 2011, it was widely expected that the main job of largely unknown new starting quarterback Keith Price would be to offer enough of a threat in the passing game to keep opposing defenses from stacking the box to bring down Polk, who presumably would carry the offense. As we all know, Price proved to be a revelation, setting school records for passing touchdowns, completion percentage and pass efficiency, and is the offense's focal point, alongside WR Kasen Williams and TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, in 2012.
That means that the good news for Sankey is that Washington doesn't need him to be great to be successful: Barring further injuries, the Huskies have enough weapons in the passing game to ensure that Sankey won't face opposing defenses who are keyed in on him. Instead, Sarkisian's primary goal for Sankey will probably be to use his talents on the ground just enough to keep defenses honest in the passing game, and to ensure that Williams and Seferian-Jenkins face as few double-teams as possible.
One thing seems likely, though: We will learn more about Sankey (and his offensive line) in the next month than we have since he committed to the University of Washington in January 2011. A couple of monster games on his part could see him sew up the role of starter for the next two-plus seasons; a series of lackluster performances, however, could see Sarkisian exploring the capabilities of his fellow RBs, especially Wilson II, with increased vigor.
As the saying goes, go big or go home.