2014 Year in Review
Even with the departure of one of the best backs in Washington Husky history in Bishop Sankey to the NFL, things didn't necessarily appear bleak on Montlake for the running game in 2014. Returning was a veteran in Jesse Callier as well as an explosive but unproven talent in Dwayne Washington, and a year-healthier Deont'ae Cooper. Add to that redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman and one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country, and it looked like the Huskies were going to be able to rely on a sound ground game to break in a new quarterback, one that was likely to be a serious running threat in his own right.
But things never really materialized that way. Callier was lost to a season-ending injury in September. Washington and Coleman were mostly sporadic in their effectiveness. Cooper never seemed to have the full faith of the coaching staff, and not for good reason. What appeared to be a nice novelty in Shaq Thompson at running back was the only viable rushing attack in the middle part of the year due to injuries to Washington and Coleman, possibly to the detriment of the defense. And an offensive line that had looked the part at least in the running attack seemingly took a step back - injuries were a key factor, and possibly due to being masked by the greatness of Sankey, and possibly due to the new coaching staff's favor of bulk over athleticism.
There were bright spots along the way, to be sure. Cooper emerged as the most well-rounded back on the roster in terms of running, blocking and pass receiving. Washington finished the season on a high note, with four 50+ yard TD runs in the final four games of the season. And Thompson parlayed his big-play ability on offense with his big-play ability on defense to win the Paul Hornung Award and garner 1st team All-American honors as an all-around player. Even though it's impossible to separate the production of this unit from the abilities of the offensive line, as a whole, I'd wager most Husky fans weren't as pleased with the rushing attack from the primary ball carriers as they'd expected to be.
Here's what we said heading into fall camp of 2014:
Dwayne Washington figures to have the inside track to become the first-string tailback after having earned the second-string role in 2013, but if Callier can return to his pre-ACL form, he'll certainly be a threat as well. (It's easy to forget that Sark referred to Callier and Sankey as 1A and 1B prior to the San Diego State game in 2012, before Sankey took advantage of Callier's injury by grabbing the starting role and never looking back.) Deontae Cooper made incredible strides last year in recovering from the three (!) ACL tears that kept him out of action until his junior year, and against Oregon State, he appeared to show off the impressive speed that had Husky fans drooling over his potential in 2010. His past health concerns will probably keep him from carrying the ball more than six or eight times per game, but he has the potential to be a dangerous change of pace if he's running on fresh legs in the third and fourth quarter. As a redshirt freshman, Lavon Coleman is the team's running back with the greatest chance to go from relative unknown to household name, as he boasts an NFL-ready frame (6-0, 215 lbs.) and played so well on the practice squad last year that he nearly convinced Sark to burn his redshirt, despite Sankey's complete command of the Husky ground game.
Players Lost, Players Returning
Twice Jesse Callier was on the cusp of assuming a larger role in the UW offense, and twice he was lost early in the season to injury; in 2012 in the first game of the season and then in 2014 as senior midway through game three. Following his most productive season as a true freshman in 2010 as the change-of-pace back to Chris Polk, Callier's breaks were mostly of the hard luck variety. His leadership in the backfield will be missed.
While never a "real" full-time running back at Washington, Shaq Thompson finished the 2014 season as the team's third-leading rusher with 456 yards and a gaudy 7.5 yards per carry. With injuries to both Coleman and Washington mid season, Thompson played almost exclusively at running back in the losses to ASU and UCLA, and the win over Colorado. While his impact as a full-time defender would've been negligible against the Buffs, he was missed defensively against the Sun Devils and Bruins. It's quite likely that Thompson would've been the best running back on the roster if he would've played there full-time.
Sophomore Lavon Coleman returns after being the primary running back in the early part of 2014. But following a 100-yard performance against Eastern Washington, his production diminished some until he was lost for 3 games to injury. By the time he was healthy, Washington was on his late-season roll, and Coleman was the solid number two. Coleman lacks top-end speed and isn't much of a receiving threat, but he's still a back with high upside for the Huskies.
Our own Howling Husky gave a great description of Dwayne Washington: "He has the size DB’s fear, the speed LB’s hate, but the vision that DL’s love." Big, fast, and strong, Washington is a tremendous home-run threat if he gets past the line of scrimmage. But he's as inclined to run himself into a bad play as he is into a good one. Even though he was recruited as a receiver, Washington's hands are somewhat suspect. But if he's able to improve his patience at the line of scrimmage and his vision even a modicum, he has the potential to be a very, very productive back. Of the thousand-yard variety.
I don't know if Deontae Cooper's lack of touches were based on ability or a new coaching staff's desire to handle a player who's value was more symbolic than real with kid gloves, but by the mid point of the season, Cooper had established himself as the most well-rounded back on the roster. Good runner, good receiver, and the most knowledgeable and capable blocker of the backs the Huskies could put on the field. He's now 2 1/2 years removed from his most recent of three ACL tears, and he ran a very fast 4.49 in the forty at the recent Husky Spring Combine. He may never get back all of the change-of-pace ability he showed as a true freshman, but he's shown that he's more than ready to be a factor in the running game.
Jomon Dotson redshirted in 2014, and is still slightly built at 5' 10" and 164 pounds. However, he showed explosive athleticism at the Husky Combine, with top three marks in the 40, vertical jump, and standing broad jump. It remains to be seen if he can physically handle the rigors of Pac 12 play at running back, but if he can't, it seems to behoove the coaching staff to find a way to use a guy like that.....
Story Lines to Watch
Can Dwayne Washington show a little more patience and vision? Vision as a running back is mostly one of those natural gifts, sort of like speed. Washington was blessed with one, and lacks the other. But part of his lack of vision is his lack of patience - he can get to a hole before his blockers can. If he can slow himself down just a little, it's going to allow running plays to set up a little better for him. And he'll be able to maximize his vision - to better see the holes the way his coaches are telling him to see them. If that happens, the sky is the limit for this still-inexperienced running back.
Can Lavon Coleman compensate for his lack of top-end speed? Coleman has very good size and is a much more natural running back than is Washington. He isn't particularly fast for a running back, and behind a charitably questionable offensive line, that might relegate him to being a back that can get what's there but not much more. With an offense that's in need of play makers, that might not be enough. Coleman might have to find other ways to break his way on to the field - notably as a blocker and receiver. If he can do those things better than the other guys on the roster, he could end up with the lion's share of the carries.
Is Deontae Cooper ready to be The Man? Cooper showed he had the speed a few weeks ago. He showed he had the all-around ability last season. There's no shame in a guy who's had the injury history he's had never regaining the ability to change direction and speed he had prior to that first injury - never mind the second or the third. But if he's recovering that shiftiness and ability to change gears - the last stuff to come around following knee surgery - the same way he's rediscovered his speed, then the Huskies might find their running back in a guy that's halfway through his PhD.
Is the answer still a few months away? It's likely that the most complete back on the roster is going to be a true freshman that won't be here until fall camp starts. It's certainly not ideal to rely on that guy as your bell cow in your running game, but that just might be the reality when....
Freshmen Arriving in the Fall
...Myles Gaskin arrives. Built along the same dimensions as Bishop Sankey, Gaskin is a back that's more quick than fast. He's a strong runner with good vision and the ability to cut back. At least against high school competition. With an offensive line that's better than it's competition. The best thing in my blue sky world is for Gaskin to redshirt, or see the field in limited action, with limited responsibilities. But with the state of the Husky offense being what it is, it's not impossible that Gaskin has a bigger role than that. Maybe much bigger.