Kirk asked me to review the running back position in 2013 as part of this series. Ok.
That was easy. Of course, when your program is graced with a record-setting, Doak Walker candidate, top NFL draft prospect like UW was with Bishop Sankey, things are that easy. When your program is inspired by the comeback story of not one but two admired veterans like Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper, things are sententious. When your program is given a glimpse of what the future may hold with some of the thunderous runs demonstrated by the likes of Dwayne Washington, things are voltaic. And, when the program is reminded of how dominating they can be with the ground game by boasting not one, not two, but three 100 yard rushers in a single game against a major rival like Oregon State, things look damn good from up in the cheap seats.
By any measurement, 2013 was a stellar campaign for Washington running backs. Bishop Sankey headlined the parade with some eye-popping stats: 143.8 yards per game (a UW record), 1870 yards (a UW record), 327 attempts (a UW record), three 200 yard rushing games (tied a UW record) and 20 rushing TDs (sixth in the nation). He was a second-team All-American, one of three finalists for the Doak Walker award, and, for good measure, he was second team All Pac 12 Academics. If he was the only story line of 2013, it would have been a unabridged success. Work in the magical comeback of Deontae Cooper that saw the three-time ACL comeback story not only get back on the field but contribute to the tune of three TDs and a 100-yard rushing performance in one of the most inspiring personal redemption stories that this program has ever witnessed. Layer in the comeback story of Jesse Callier from his own ACL and, well, we have a campaign for the ages.
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.
- Bishop Sankey: 372 carries; 1870 yards; 5.72 YPC; 20 Ru TDs
- Dwayne Washington: 47 carries; 332 yard; 7.02 YPC; 4 Ru TDs
- Deontae Cooper: 42 carries; 270 yards; 6.28 YPC; 3 Ru TDs
Players lost: Bishop Sankey
Incoming players: Jomon Dotson
A Look Ahead:
How spoiled are we as Husky fans? After watching one of the best RB's in Husky history in Chris Polk, we lamented the loss of the "War Daddy" only to be gifted with perhaps an even better RB in Bishop Sankey. For the last five years we've seen the most prolific stretch of starting RB play in Washington history. Can lightning strike a third time?
Probably not, but this is a position stocked both with numbers and with potential. While I'm not sure there is a RB on this roster that is equal to Sankey (or Polk), there are a lot of good pieces in place, and overall I'm not so sure that the RB production will decrease significantly - it will probably just be spread out a little more.
The leading candidate to emerge from Spring atop the depth chart is Dwayne Washington. A converted WR, he brings the best measurables to the competition with his combination of size (6'1", 220lbs) and great straight-line speed. He's not a particularly shifty runner - he's more of a find the hole and explode through it type of runner. I don't know how much history he has playing RB, though I'm pretty sure he was almost exclusively a WR in H.S., which means he probably hasn't developed the vision and running instincts of other guys on the roster. But he has good hands and is the biggest home-run threat. What really held him back last year was a fumble problem, and if he can't improve his ball security he's not going to get meaningful carries.
Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper are the vets of the group and both members of the ACL injury recovery club (in Coop's case, a 3x member). Callier was thought to be a starter (or at least a 1A) heading into 2012 before blowing out his knee in the opener. He looked somewhat tentative and not as quick last year in his return, which is to be expected the first year back from an ACL tear. At his best he's a quick back that can run between the tackles and is a good receiving option out of the backfield. Cooper - one of the most inspirational comeback stories you'll find - looked stiff and tentative until the Oregon State blowout when he showed much of the old speed that he was known for as a true freshman when he wowed observers in practice (before the first of this three ACL tears). If that Oregon State game was a harbinger of what he can do this year, he'll be right in the mix.
Lavon Coleman is the X-factor. With the depth at the position last year Sark had the luxury of redshirting him, and yet he still very nearly pushed his way on to the field - the coaches raved about him. He's nearly as big as Washington, and while he doesn't have his speed, he's a terrific bulldog of a runner, and when the dust clears there's a decent chance he could win the job.
The bigger question IMO is what Petersen and his staff do with the FB position, one that has continued to wither and fade away under Sark. Psalm Wooching is the nominal returning starter, but he saw no more than a handful of snaps on offense in most games. Will Petersen revive the position? If not, Wooching has the size and physicality to move to LB and succeed.
No team ever wants to see a record-holder the likes of Bishop Sankey walk out the door before his eligibility is all used up. But, if a team were ever to face that situation, it sure does help to have a whole stable of experienced running backs - three of whom have already logged individual 100 yard rushing games - that includes two upper-classmen and a physical specimen who was your second-leading rusher. Layer in the depth that you have in highly recruited talent like Lavon Coleman and Ryan McDaniel and, well, you have as good a RB situation as just about any team in the Pac 12. From top to bottom, this unit has to be mentioned in the same breath as Oregon and USC.
This is not to say that there won't be drama in the RB depth chart this spring. On the contrary, there are several questions that remain to be answered. Chief among them is the overall health status of both Cooper and Callier. Cooper, in particular, showed steady improvement throughout the season. Time will tell if his trajectory continued during the offseason or if he has hit some kind of physical plateau. There is certainly no sure thing there. Additionally, the fumbling problems that Washington had early in the season never got fully resolved, at least in the public eye of the Husky fan base. Finally, the integration of larger backs on the roster - and I'm talking specifically about McDaniel and Psalm Wooching - will be interesting to see play out as the new UW coaching staff assesses what they have to work with. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned what may be the brightest of the upsides amongst them in Lavon Coleman.
The Huskies enter the 2014 spring with a lot of hope at running back, but with an abundance of uncertainty that will play itself out in one of the most scrumptious battle royales to be found anywhere in this year's camp.
If Dwayne Washington can hold onto the ball, to me, he's the future at running back at Washington. Unless Cooper and/or Callier continue to improve following a full year of good health and rehabilitation. Or unless Coleman turns out to be the real deal, and ends up demanding most of the carries. I guess this is another position that could aptly filed as "wide open."
Cooper was immediately the feel-good story of the season as the first back off the bench against Boise State, but it was Washington that got the bulk of the leftover carries. And he looked great. Speed, size, and you'd have to assume a guy that was recruited as a receiver would have, at worst, decent hands out of the backfield. Fumbling 100% of your carries in the second game of the season is a good way to find the bench, but it was disappointing that Washington become largely the forgotten man after the Illinois game. Rumor (since none of us could watch practices, it's tough to know for sure) is that he continued to have issues holding on to the ball in practice. Assuming it's true, hopefully he can regain his confidence and put that behind him, because he has the look of a guy that could be a 1,000 yard back.
Both Cooper and Callier should be stronger this spring than in 2013, being 18 months off of ACL surgery now. While Callier had a fair share of carries early in the season, his activity seemd to taper off until the bowl game, and he mostly didn't look as effective late as he did early. Cooper, on the other hand, waited until late in the season to show flashes of the potential that had Husky fans crowning him the next great Washington back during the spring of his true freshman season. This will be the first time he's been able to spend the offseason training as opposed to rehabbing, so it will be interesting to see what he's able to do this spring. Callier as well. And really McDaniel fits in this conversation as well, as he's entering a second year of full health. But with the talent on hand, it's going to be tough to crack the rotation. He was a guy that was more highly regarded as a linebacker than a running back, so it's not impossible a position change is in his future.
Coleman has good size and decent speed. I didn't really hear about him "wowing" people as much as some of the other redshirts this past season, but that certainly doesn't mean that he's not going to make some noise this spring. If he's a willing pass blocker and shows decent hands, there's a very good chance he'll earn carries in 2014.