In 2009 - Sark's first season at the UW - it was not at all clear who would top the depth at RB, and it certainly wasn't obvious that whoever won the job would top 1,000 yards. But Chris Polk bounced back from a forgettable true freshman season and put up 1,113 yards in 2009, 1,415 in 2010 and then 1,488 in 2011 to finish 2nd all-time in the Husky record books. Husky fans then fretted about replacing Polk, only to see Bishop Sankey step in and surpass Polk, rushing for 1,439 yards in 2012 and a school-record 1,870 last year before opting to enter the NFL draft as a true Junior.
Husky fans now have to ask themselves if lightning can strike again. Looking at the roster, there are a number of intriguing candidates to take over, but it's not clear at this point if any can put a stranglehold on the job the way Sankey (and Polk before him) did. Coach Petersen has a history of distributing carries a little more than Sark did at the UW, but he still usually had a lead back that had twice as many carries as the next guy. If that happens here, there's a pretty good chance the Huskies will boast a 1,000 yard rusher for the 6th season in a row (and extending a school record in the process). So who are the top three candidates to lead the Huskies in rushing yards this year? With all due respect to Jesse Callier and possible two-way sensation Shaq Thompson, I think these are the top candidates:
Option #1 - Deontae Cooper (RS-Jr)
Sports medicine has come a long ways in the last 30 years. It used to be when a RB sustained a knee injury there were major question marks about whether he'd ever get back to 100%. Now, folks hardly blink an eye when a player goes down with a knee injury. And so, while it was disappointing to see Deontae Cooper felled by torn ligaments in his left knee during Fall Camp as a freshman, most figured he'd be good to go the next year. He busted his butt to get back to the field the next year only to tear ligaments in the same knee - uh-oh. Now folks started to wonder if he'd be able to recover from back to back injuries on the same knee. He busted his butt again and once again got back on to the field the following year, only to tear ligaments in his right knee in Fall Camp and have to sit out his 3rd straight year. By this point Husky fans could be forgiven if they figured that was it - Cooper's career was over before it ever really had a chance to start. But Cooper isn't like most folks - blessed with tremendous character, positive energy and incredible determination, he wouldn't let yet another setback derail him.
Rather than take a medical retirement, he went back to work, rehabbed (yet again) and got back out on the field; when he made it back for Fall Camp last year and emerged unscathed, it was a minor miracle. And when he ran out on to the field against Boise State last year for his first live game action in his career, astute Husky fans yelled their heads off in appreciation (and more than a few eyes moistened). If his 8 yards on 6 carries that day were unimpressive, well, that really wasn't the point - the point was he'd worked his way back from setback after setback after setback, displaying a tenacity that few possess. And yet, that wasn't enough for Deontae. He wasn't going to be satisfied just being a nice story, he wanted to be an impact player - the kind of player everyone thought he'd be when he first dazzled observers as a true frosh in his first Spring Camp back in 2010. And so he kept busting his butt in practice and slowly shook off the rust. He got 14 carries against Idaho State for 59 yards and his first college TD, worked hard in practice and tallied another 10 carries for 34 yards vs. California and Colorado. Then the following week in Corvallis he gave notice that he was not just a story, he was a legit RB as he busted off two long runs of 70 & 68 yards on his way to 166 yards on just 11 carries. Let's just pause to relive one of those runs:
All of this is an incredibly long-winded way of saying that Cooper has to be hands-down the fan favorite to win the starting RB job for 2014. His tale is so inspirational that the program should give serious consideration to renaming the Guy Flaherty Award - the oldest and most respected award given by the team - as the Deontae Cooper Award. With all due respect to Guy Flaherty, it's hard to imagine he was a more inspirational teammate than Cooper has been (and oh by the way, Cooper was the 2013 winner of the award in the easiest voting ever).
But beyond just being a fan favorite, is he a legitimate threat to win the starting RB job? While he looked a bit stiff and lacking explosiveness for much of last season, the Oregon State game seemed to be his breakthrough into trusting his body again. He still didn't show the same explosiveness he had as a true frosh, and he may never fully regain that, but he's close, and he topped the depth charts at the end of this Spring. He's a veteran the coaches can trust, and he shows the willingness to stick his nose in there on inside runs and on pass-blocking. The questions with him are whether his legs can hold up, how good his hands are in the passing game and just how much lateral quickness he's regained.
Reasons For: Veteran leadership and experience; topped the depth coming out of spring; in his 2nd year removed from his last surgery, should look more explosive
Reasons Against: May not be able to shoulder a full load; might not be back to 100% yet
Option #2 - Dwayne Washington (RS-So)
Of all the RB's on the roster, Washington possesses the most impressive measurables - he's big, at 6'2", 219 lbs and is the fastest of all the backs. As a converted WR, he has good hands, and he's a physical guy, unafraid of contact - the kind of runner that clearly relishes running through a defender instead of around him. Moved to RB from WR during the Las Vegas Bowl practices in 2012, he quickly moved up the depth chart going into last year and was the 2nd guy off the bench in the first two games. However his two fumbles in game two vs. Illinois clearly spooked the coaching staff and he saw only token action the rest of the season until the Oregon State game, where he put on his own display of explosive running:
All told he tallied 141 yards on 11 carries on the night, including that 71-yard TD burst. He headed into Spring practices as the favorite to win the job, but shoulder issues ended up sidelining him and he had to settle for mental reps and film study. He's healthy enough now to practice again, and it will be of great interest to see if he can harness his physical gifts and refine his technique - remember, he's only entering his 2nd year as a full-time RB.
Reasons For: The fastest, most explosive back on the roster; has the size and traits to be an every-down back; leading returning rusher from 2013
Reasons Against: Still learning the position; has shown a problem with fumbles
Option #3 - Lavon Coleman (RS-Fr)
Back in the glory days under Don James, the Huskies plucked one of their most touted recruits ever out of Lompoc High School in Lompoc, CA - a freak of nature named Napolean Kaufman, one of the top RB recruits in the country in 1991. Small but incredibly strong - he benched well over 400 lbs, more than twice his listed 185 lbs - he was also one of the fastest Huskies ever, and he ended his Husky career as the school's all-time leading rusher (a record that still stands). So there was some excitement when the Huskies again plucked a touted RB out of Lompoc in the 2013 recruiting class by the name of Lavon Coleman.
Coleman is a different runner than Kaufman; while fast, he's not an elite level sprinter like Nip was. But he's bigger, a shade under 6' and listed at 217 lbs. He runs with a terrific combination of size, power and vision, with just enough lateral quickness to make defenders miss. Even with Sankey as the lead back and a wealth of backups in Cooper, Jesse Callier and Washington, last year's staff was sorely tempted to take the redshirt off of Coleman - he was just that impressive in practices.
With his redshirt left intact, he now has every opportunity to win the starting job, and he's got the tools to do so. When asked about the RB competition at the Pac-12 Media Days, OT Ben Riva was quick to name Coleman as a "stud" and the guy to watch out for.
Reasons For: Strong all-around skills; has the size to be an every-down guy; has a lot of insider buzz in his corner
Reasons Against: No game experience; was unable to pass Cooper on the depth in the spring
The Verdict: Coleman
Much like the question on receiving yards, this is a tough one - there are a number of good candidates and no one clear leader. Heck, for all we know Shaq will light it up on offense and make it impossible for Petersen to keep him off the field. But I'm going to go with Coleman - I think he's got the best all-around traits, and while he's unproven in game situations, I tend to trust the hype that's building around him. I do think this is a position that won't necessarily sort itself out right away, if at all. I expect carries will have a far more even distribution among the backs than we've seen since before Sark arrived, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see guys like Mickens & Ross also get some chances too. But by the end of the season I suspect that Coleman will have edged his way to the top of the depth and will have the most yards, though I also expect the string of 1,000 yard rushers to come to an end as Washington, Cooper, Callier & Thompson will all get enough looks to keep Coleman to around 150 carries or so.
What say you?