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Washington Spring Football: Running Backs

Will Salvon Ahmed become the undisputed lead back and how much will we see of Sean McGrew, Kamari Pleasant, and Richard Newton?

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in 4 seasons we’ll get to the season opener and not have Myles Gaskin on the Husky roster. It’s a sad day but there is plenty of talent still on the roster at the position and we’ll see who the next star will be in a long line of great Husky running backs.

Sidebar: How many programs have had the kind of sustained success at the running back position that UW has over the past decade? 2009-2011 Chris Polk with averages of 1,230 yds and 8 TDs. 2012-2013 Bishop Sankey with averages of 1,607 yds and 17 TDs. 2014- slight blip with Dwayne Washington/Lavon Coleman splitting carries. 2015-2018 Myles Gaskin with averages of 1,331 yds and 14 TDs.

Suffice it to say that Husky fans have gotten spoiled with their rushing attack. Here are the candidates to pick up the mantle:

Salvon Ahmed, Jr. 5’11”, 193 lbs

Sean McGrew, Jr. 5’7”, 184 lbs

Kamari Pleasant, Jr. 6’0”, 215 lbs

Richard Newton, Rs Fr. 6’0”, 213 lbs

Cameron Davis, Fr. 6’2”, 187 lbs (will not be on campus until the fall)

Malik Braxton and Jamyn Patu are also on the roster as walk-ons and while both have talent it would likely take multiple injuries for either to see a meaningful snap so right now we’ll focus on the other five.

The Primary Guy

The favorite for the majority of the playing time is unsurprisingly Salvon Ahmed. Polk, Sankey, and Gaskin broke records with their production at UW but Ahmed was more highly ranked coming out of Juanita High School than any of them. And it’s extremely evident as to why.

Ahmed is flat out frickin’ fast. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash at this year’s Husky combine with a hand timed 4.32. Let’s just add one-tenth of a second for the hand timing to be conservative and assume it was actually closer to a 4.42. That would still put him in the 90th percentile among all running backs at the NFL combine. The guy can move.

Many Husky fans have questions though about whether Ahmed has the other attributes necessary to be an elite running back. Ahmed finished with 608 yards at a 5.8 yards per carry clip and 7 TDs as the primary backup to Myles Gaskin while chipping in with an additional 170 receiving yards mostly coming from bubble screens. When Gaskin uncharacteristically missed 2 games due to injury there was a chance for Ahmed to assert himself. But Salvon managed just 72 yards on 17 carries (4.2 ypc) in those games. However, Ahmed himself got banged up during that time so it isn’t entirely fair to say the staff didn’t have confidence in him as the lead back. But the coaching staff definitely seemed to have each player assigned to a different role.

Ahmed often entered the game lined up wide and either ran a jet sweep motion or caught a bubble screen to the sideline in addition to traditional running back carries. When Gaskin was out Sean McGrew rather than Ahmed got the ball in the wildcat formation. The question becomes: is Ahmed still going to be utilized differently in Gaskin’s absence or will he now be allowed to take Gaskin’s place as the bell cow back?

I expect that the answer will be a little of both. Barring injury I would be shocked if any running back other than Salvon Ahmed led the team in carries. But given Ahmed’s strengths it makes sense to continue to try to get him out in space as much as possible.

Last season Ahmed averaged a half yard more per carry than Myles Gaskin both before and after contact. While he may be less likely to break an arm tackle and spin for that extra half yard than Gaskin, Ahmed still performed well running between the tackles and I think will surprise folks who have pigeonholed him as nothing more than a finesse speed back.

The Rest of the Juniors

During the 4 years of the Chris Petersen/Myles Gaskin combination the primary back received 59% of the running back carries, the 2nd 22%, the 3rd 13%, and the 4th 6%. Even with Gaskin’s injury last year the top two spots had almost the exact same split as above. The bigger difference was more carries for the 4th back (Pleasant) and fewer for the 3rd (McGrew).

Pleasant and McGrew are both juniors and combined for 440 yards rushing (4.7 ypc) and 3 TDs as the 3rd and 4th back. The two are dissimilar enough that they should give the coaching staff the ability to give each a good amount of playing time without taking away from one another.

McGrew is still the shortest player on the Husky roster although he bulked up by gaining 10 pounds since the fall. He finished 5th in the pro agility drill at the Husky combine and definitely is more about wiggle than pure straight line speed. McGrew also showed the ability to excel as a pass catcher. Last season he was the only back to be targeted on a throw more than 10 yards downfield and caught both such targets for a combined 62 yards. Given his skill set it seems natural that McGrew will take over many of the Ahmed routes/carries from last season and will often serve as the 3rd down back in passing situations. It was only 43 snaps but the Huskies had a success rate of 67% on passing plays last year with McGrew in the game when it was no greater than 43% with any other Husky back.

Meanwhile, Kamari Pleasant seems likely to inherit the Lavon Coleman role from years’ past. Pleasant also bulked up by 11 pounds since the fall and will give the team someone with a little experience who might be more successful in between the tackles short yardage running situations than Salvon Ahmed. Pleasant had by far the lowest missed tackle rate among the UW running backs in 2018 but the rest of his numbers were comparable on a per carry basis to Ahmed and Gaskin. I’d expect to see Pleasant be the primary back for 2-3 drives per game while also potentially serving as the hybrid fullback in 2 back formations as he did on occasion with Gaskin last season.

The Freshmen

Richard Newton redshirted last season along with the rest of the freshman class and didn’t get a single snap of game action. There were reports that he was dealing with a shoulder injury for most of the fall so even if he were talented enough to warrant it, he wouldn’t have seen the field anyways.

Newton and Pleasant are almost the exact same height and weight at the moment and so it would seem likely that the two are competing for the same role in the offense. Pleasant has the experience but Newton looks the part and it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising if he were able to steal some carries as the season goes on. And if Pleasant were to miss any time due to injury I’d expect Newton to become much more heavily involved.

The final scholarship back is true freshman Cameron Davis who is the tallest back yet is just barely heavier than the 7 inches shorter Sean McGrew. That plus not being an early enrollee seems like a recipe for a redshirt season in which the strength and conditioning team bulk him up by 10-15 pounds while making sure he doesn’t lose speed. Davis had extremely impressive high school film and I fully expect him to have a good shot at winning the starting job at some point in his career...but not this year.