Husky Spring Preview: Running Backs

Sankey rushses for a 61 yard TD while Stepfan Taylor watches on from somewhere. - Otto Greule Jr

The Huskies got through 2012 with about as little depth at RB as any team could survive. As the spring approaches, the lack of depth appears to be transforming into a stable of quality backs.

2013 Spring Previews

2/26 Quarterbacks (Jack Follman)
2/27 Running Backs (Chris Landon)

As we continue our series looking at the Huskies in advance of spring camp, the pleasure of previewing one of the more intriguing stories of camp falls to me. Running Back was a cause of consternation for most Husky fans coming into 2012, even before injuries took out both Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier. After all, 2011 saw the conclusion of the career of one of the most productive backs in Washington history as Chris Polk, aka War Daddy, took his show to the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles. Despite the early blows the team absorbed at the position, the rushing attack became the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal offensive season. Can 2013 hold in store similar surprises? Let's take a look.

2012 Recap - Running Backs

This one is easy. Bishop Sankey.

Next?

Since Kirk has given me a target of 1500 words, I guess I'll have to expound. By now, everyone knows the story as well as they know the words to Smells Like Teen Spirit. The spring opened up with no Chris Polk, who inexplicably went undrafted by the NFL. Before anyone had even begun tackling, Deontae Cooper had suffered his third major ACL injury in three years. By the first half of the first game, Jesse Callier had also torn an ACL - in his right knee - and, in an instant, the Husky tailback depth chart consisted of promising sophomore Bishop Sankey and a troika of inexperience backups in Dezden Petty, true frosh Erich Wilson and walk-on Willis Wilson.

Steve Sarkisian, who now faced the prospect of having half of his playbook thrown out the window for the remainder of the season, was quoted after that first game versus San Diego State, "Obviously, we're going to find out more about Bishop Sankey in a hurry".

And find out he did.

Bishop struggled carrying the load at first. More of an upright, slashing style runner, Bishop had trouble breaking tackles against both SDSU and LSU and was really a non-factor in both those games. He got a bit of momentum going against Portland State in reaching 100 yards for the first time in his career, but most Husky fans knew to take that performance with a grain of salt. But, then, a true breakout performance - the kind of which most players will only ever dream about. In front of a national audience against a top 10 opponent with a reputation as one of the best defensive teams in the nation, Sankey exploded. Stanford, which had only surrendered 124 yards total rushing in three previous games combined, was victimized by a Bishop Sankey who discovered his strength, his endurance and guts. Down 13-3 and facing fourth and one with the game on the line in the third quarter, Bishop also discovered his true identity: Husky MVP. After receiving the handoff and hesitating just a moment to allow the hole to his right to come open, Bishop saw his glimmer and took off for a 61 yard TD run that would put the Huskies back into the game and propel Bishop through the rest of the season. When it was all said and done, Bishop had completed one of the best single seasons of any "workhorse" Husky tailback with nearly 1700 total yards (1439 on the ground), 298 carries and 16 TDs. His rushing TDs were third in the conference and his yards/game were fourth. Despite his team losing in a heartbreaker, Bishop became the first Las Vegas Bowl MVP to play for a losing team when he scorched a tough Boise State defense to the tune of 205 yards rushing and 74 receiving. All of this, apparently, wasn't good enough to overcome Stepfan Taylor in the Ted Miller's list of the Top 25 of 2012 (despite the fact that Taylor had less production in more games and lost to Bishop head to head). Whatever.

All season, the Huskies toed the line with Bishop not knowing at what point the physical load would become too much. But Bishop never relented and, as such, the rest of the Husky RB stable had few highlights. The Huskies definitely got a few big short yardage plays out of Petty - particularly in that Stanford game. Kendyl Taylor was converted from WR to RB midway through the season and emerged as the Huskies clear number two back. He finished with 35 carries and just over 200 yards for the season. Erich Wilson got some early playing time as his redshirt was burned and Jonathon Amosa played the role of FB when one was required, providing steady contributions as a blocker and as an occasional receiver in the few times his number was called. But the story of the 2012 season was Bishop Sankey and the contributions he made as the clear cut offensive MVP for the Huskies.

Outgoing and Incoming

Unlike the spring of 2012 when UW was facing the early departure of Chris Polk to the NFL, the Huskies are not facing the loss of any seniors other than Amosa. That isn't to say that there won't be more outgoing players. Injuries have certainly put the careers of Deontae Cooper and Cooper Pelluer in doubt. In addition, the presence of so many RBs on this year's roster makes some attrition very possible.

On an incoming basis, the Huskies welcome a few players coming off of redshirt seasons, a player making a position switch and a new recruit. Psalm Wooching, Ryan McDaniel and Pelluer are all coming off redshirts and will be joined by Dwayne Washington as "returning incomings" in 2013. They will be complemented by the addition of Lavon Coleman, signed as an incoming recruit out of Lompoc, the same high school as Husky great Napolean Kaufman.

Projected Spring Depth Chart

The depth chart begins with Bishop Sankey and gets a bit complicated after that as some players don't have their final positions yet determined. I haven't seen too many mock depth charts yet, so I'll venture that the pecking order will look something like this:

Tailback

1. Bishop Sankey, Jr
2. Kendyl Taylor, So
3. Dezden Petty, So / Erich Wilson, So / Ryan McDaniel, RFr
4. Jesse Callier, Jr / Deontae Cooper, Jr / Dwayne Washington, RFr / Lavon Coleman, TFr

There are a lot of question marks here, especially given the injury situations to McDaniel, Callier and Cooper. In fact, the latter two are not expected to see much if any action in the spring. Dwayne Washington is a bit of a mystery given that his position switch came during the bowl practices and this offseason has been about upping his weight.

Fullback

1. Psalm Wooching, RFr / Dezden Petty, So / Cooper Pelluer, Jr

At fullback, there will be a full out battle for the starting position for whatever it is worth. Sarkisian made very little use of the fullback role last season, but has said that he'd like to better incorporate it into the offense. Needless to say, the candidates to start, save Pelluer, are versatile athletes that may serve in a variety of roles.

Three Spring Questions

1. Will a legitimate, load sharing backup finally emerge?

There can be little doubt that the Huskies lucked out in 2012. How often do P12 teams get away with featuring one back for a full 13 game schedule in an offense that emphasizes the run as much as Sark does (and, given that two of the top three single season record holders for carries in a season are Sark products, let us not debate this point)? The Huskies can't count on getting away with it again. Someone behind Sankey is going to get significant playing time in 2013. Regardless if it is a returning wounded warrior or one of our new "big backs", the question is whether or not they will be up to the task.

2. Will Deontae make a miraculous come back?

We all want to believe. Since sacrificing his senior year of high school so that he could early enroll in the spring of 2010, Deontae Cooper has been all about being a Husky. He dazzled us with his potential early on and we all suffered with him when he went down with that first ACL. He rehabbed it, came back, and tore it again. Incomprehensible. But he would not be denied. He smiled his smile and went about the arduous process of getting ready for another season. Things looked great and the kid was showing signs of an unbelievable comeback from not one but two ACLs. Then practice began and, in a non-contact drill, Deontae tore yet another ACL - this time in his other leg. We all speculated that this was the end. But Deontae said, "Don't sleep on me" and went back to work. While it is unlikely that Cooper will see any field time this spring, it is very likely that we'll know if his future is that of a medical retirement scholarship athlete or if the coaches intend to give him a shot to make it back in the fall.

3. Will FB become a part of the offense?

As noted, Sark has leaned much on the FB since taking over at UW. Much of this is attributable to the fact that he hasn't had the kind of versatile athletes that can be weapons in their own right. That would appear to be changing in 2013. Psalm Wooching is a versatile athlete who has a reputation as a weight room demon and competed in rugby, track (sprinter!) and basketball as a high schooler. Petty, obviously, has demonstrated his potential as a ball carrier. Even guys like Joshua Perkins and Ryan McDaniel could figure in here.

Key Positional Battles

As noted earlier, the key battle will be played out for the primary backup spot. However, the spring will only be part of that battle. Jesse Callier is not expected to do much in the spring and, as such, we won't know his standing in the overall scheme of things until this fall. That leaves a battle royale between Erich Wilson, Kendyl Taylor and Dezden Petty as the incumbents for the role of Bishop Sankey's caddy. Both Wilson and Taylor were tasked this offseason with getting bigger and improving their ability to hit holes. Petty needed to work on his agility and vision. Given the youth of each of these guys, big strides forward by any one of them would not be shocking...or not. With young guys, you never really know. Each of these guys will no doubt get pushed by both McDaniel and Coleman as they look to show what they can do in the "big back" role that Sark has very clearly committed to integrating into his offense. Dwayne Washington is an intriguing wild card. In short, expect nothing and enjoy the suspense.

The fullback position is in equal competition. Wooching is the man that we are all waiting to see hit the field, but guys like Petty and Pelleur (if healthy) have experience and, if nothing else, are somewhat more known commodities as blockers. Whomever emerges out of this group will tell us a lot about what Sark and co are thinking about with the role of the position in the offense going forward.

Closing Comments

There are questions awaiting answers at Running Back for the Huskies as the spring approaches. With uncertainty lingering over the competency of the passing attack, the running back role will be as valuable to the Huskies in 2013 as it has been in any other previous season. With a bona-fide, All Pac 12 candidate in Bishop Sankey, the foundation is there. Intriguing questions about the potential of injured stars and the emergence of the "big back" in Sark's offense will keep us all glued to the Dawg Pound once camp commences. It is going to be a fun spring.

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