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Washington Huskies Roster Recap: Running Backs

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‘Backs young and old are primed to breakout, but Newton is the leader in the clubhouse

Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl - Washington v Boise State

I’m calling it now. The Ground ‘N Pound will be back and more important than ever.

Despite hopes that we would move towards a more cohesive, wide-open, and high-flying offense after parting ways with Bush Hamdan, John Donovan’s hiring is a sign that Lake aims to get back to our pro-style roots. Between Donovan’s roots as a running backs coach, his smash-mouth and option-influenced schemes, and turnover at the quarterback position, our offense will continue to run through our ‘backs for the foreseeable future. The biggest question mark will be who can step up and fill the void Salvon Ahmed left as he entered the NFL draft.

Key Losses

Salvon Ahmed - 1,020 Yards Rushing, 5.4 YPC, 11 Rushing TDs

In his one season as lead back, Ahmed wasn’t too shabby, delivering a 1,100 all-purpose yard season as Myles Gaskin’s follow-up act. While sometimes panned for his inconsistency between the tackles (I’ll admit that I was a proponent of that opinion), his home run ability was dynamic enough to yield him a solid 5.4 yard per carry average (a half yard greater than Gaskin’s 2018 season average). From a national perspective, Ahmed posted fairly pedestrian numbers finishing 52nd in rushing yardage, 81st in yards per carry, and tied for 40th in rushing TDs, but that production accounted for approximately 50% of our running backs’ output in 2019.

Luckily, Ahmed is our only loss at the position as every other scholarship running back returns.

Running Backs in Donovan’s Offense

Before we dive into who we might see this coming season, it’s a good idea to get a better sense for what the offense might look like under our new OC and what roles the running backs play. I’ve done a deep dive on Donovan’s offenses (part 1 & part 2), but a few points to keep in mind that relate to the running backs are as follows:

  • Donovan adheres to the pro-style approach that you should leverage your best players, so expect a limited rotation where the top two running backs split the carries 65/35.
  • He avoids situations where the running back on the field is limiting the play calling or tipping off the defense. Therefore, ‘backs that get snaps need to provide value in run and pass situations through a well-rounded skill set.
  • The running backs may see their role in the passing game increase under Donovan. The Jacksonville Jaguars found success passing the ball efficiently when running backs accounted for over 20% of passes (Fournette led the team in receptions in 2019). Receiving may not be an essential skill, but it could serve as a way to stand out.
  • The interior run game, especially power/gap schemes, is the foundation of Donovan’s run game. He’s well-versed in zone-based offenses and the option game too, so expect a downhill run game that is diverse and adaptable to talent.

While these are based on what Donovan has shown in the past, I don’t expect too much deviation from some of the established roles that we have seen as of last year.

2020 Washington Huskies Running Backs

Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Sean McGrew 5 5-7 185 RS-SR
Richard Newton 6 6-0 208 RS-SO
Cameron Davis 22 6-0 200 RS-FR
Kamari Pleasant 24 6-0 221 RS-SR
Jay'Veon Sunday 26 5-11 196 FR
Javon Forward* 27 - - FR
Sam Adams II 28 6-1 194 FR
Capassio Cherry* 34 5-10 184 SO
* Denotes Walk-on

2019 UW Running Backs Advanced Statistics

Player Avg Yards Before 1st Contact Avg Yards After 1st Contact Forced Missed Tackle % % of Carries with + Yards Opportunity Rate Highlight Yards per Opportunity % Carries Against 8+ Man Box Success Rate on Carries
Player Avg Yards Before 1st Contact Avg Yards After 1st Contact Forced Missed Tackle % % of Carries with + Yards Opportunity Rate Highlight Yards per Opportunity % Carries Against 8+ Man Box Success Rate on Carries
Salvon Ahmed 3.22 2.22 13.51% 83.24% 46.11% 4.13 29.19% 54.10%
Richard Newton 2.67 1.67 12.93% 86.21% 41.12% 1.55 28.45% 53.45%
Sean McGrew 4.80 1.50 11.11% 90.74% 46.30% 1.66 9.26% 51.85%
Kamari Pleasant 0.81 1.38 6.25% 68.75% 26.67% 1.13 31.25% 18.75%
Check out Max’s full breakdown of the 2019 RB advanced statistics

Key Returners

Richard Newton - 498 Yards, 4.3 YPC, 11 Total TDs

A surprising riser up the depth chart last year, Newton finished the season as our second leading rusher. Initially filling the short-yardage back and wildcat QB roles, Newton quickly gained traction as a hard-nosed option worthy of more snaps by mid-season. At this point, the division of carries last year has assured Newton of a significant role as he got nearly twice as many carries as McGrew, who was the third leading rusher on the team.

Newton’s biggest value to the offense, is his down-to-down consistency as a bell cow ‘back. His mixture of short area explosiveness, balance-through-contact, and vision make him a punishing running between the tackles and a gasher late in games. Newton passes the good ol’ eye test as the type of lead ‘back that coaches can lean on to keep the offense ahead of the sticks, even if the advanced stats haven’t been as kind. Those advanced stats favored Ahmed and McGrew’s propensity to generate highlight yards (4.13 & 1.66 highlight yards per opportunity compared to 1.55 for Newton), but Newton’s success rate on carries were right behind Ahmed’s team best (54% to 53%) despite the worst average yards before contact and opportunity rate of the top three rushers. I expect these numbers to increase for Newton as his usage becomes more varied, and I’d expect his efficiency to increase despite potentially greater usage.

Two things may hold Newton back from meeting or surpassing Ahmed’s success as a lead back. One is durability as Newton’s injury history is rather spotty (two lower body injuries and a shoulder injury since his senior year of HS). The second is his ability to stick on the field in passing situations. Newton hasn’t been asked to do much as a receiver, but I’ve been told by those who have regularly attended practices that they have no reservations about his ability to be an adequate check down option in the passing game. As far as blocking, Newton still needs to refine his technique and eye discipline. While he’s a willing blocker that squares up to rushers (rather than sell out for the cut block), he tends to drop his eyes and lose balance, which causes too many whiffed blocks. Developing in either receiving or blocking could help mitigate the other, so I am confident that neither will prove to be a major stumbling block for Newton.

Sean McGrew - 342 Yards, 6.2 YPC, 1 Rushing TD

Looking through the roster, there’s no one on the roster that has a lightning-in-a-bottle style of play quite like Ahmed, but if I had to pick someone who comes the closest it’d be Sean McGrew. With his combination of slippery short-area agility, explosive acceleration, refined vision, and receiving ability, it’s possible that McGrew enters 2020 as a more complete back than Ahmed was last year. That isn’t to say he’s better or more talented (his top end speed can’t touch Ahmed’s), but I trust his array of skills and versatility more than I did with Ahmed, especially receiving.

The problem for McGrew has been his inability to stay on the field. The flashes were bright, 18 carries for 110 yards vs. BYU (starting in place of Ahmed) & 13 carries for 106 yards vs. Arizona, but those were few and far between. Outside of those games, McGrew never received more than 8 touches, which came as a major shock since he was considered a favorite to be the secondary/complementary option at running back heading into last season.

Like I said earlier, McGrew is a solid receiver, and it is what separates him from the rest of the returning running backs. Contrary to popular belief, throwing the ball to a ‘back isn’t as simple as it seems. Fortunately, McGrew has HS and UW tape proving his utility in the passing game out of the backfield, out of the slot, and after the catch. A shift away from max protection passing concepts and towards a more wide-open approach could benefit him the most. A slight uptick in carries and even a few check down passes per game could reasonably put him within reach of a 500/500 rushing/receiving season.

Kamari Pleasant - 35 Yards, 2.2 YPC, 0 TDs

McGrew’s fellow redshirt senior ‘back, Pleasant’s UW career has also been plagued with fits and starts. Brief appearances as a freshman turned into a larger role as a sophomore, but he’s seemingly found himself as a distant fourth option in the rotation ever since. My hunch is that Pleasant’s lack of defining traits has limited his ability to find a more meaningful role in the rotation. He hasn’t shown enough down-to-down consistency to make a meaningful push to be an early down contributor, he doesn’t have the speed, burst, or shiftiness to be a complementary ‘back in a thunder-lighting duo, and he isn’t the receiver that McGrew is. That being said, Pleasant is decent enough in all of those areas as a “jack-of-all-trades master of none” type of player.

A good place to start looking for a role for him might be as the primary back up on early downs. Having consistently added weight over his time at UW, Pleasant finds himself as the biggest ‘back in on the roster at 221 lbs, and a big ‘back that can soak up carries can be valuable. This can be an especially important role if we want to be cautious with McGrew’s touch count and he becomes a more integral part of the passing attack. I hesitate to suggest that Pleasant would be a candidate to be our short yardage ‘back despite his size due to the fact that his vision between the tackles has been inconsistent and he’s struggled to run behind his pads.

Either way, as one of the most experienced ‘backs on the roster, I expect Pleasant to have some role in the offense.

Cameron Davis - 4-Star 2019 Recruit

Davis is a great candidate to make a Newton-type of surprise breakthrough, and there is already some hype building for such an occurrence. He doesn’t have a defining trait, but Davis combines enough “running back traits” to be an effective and versatile ‘back. Based on his HS tape, Davis is quicker than he is fast, but he seems to have more than enough burst and speed to get around the edge on outside runs. He has shown good vision reading LB leverage on the interior, reading flow when running to the perimeter, and is comfortable running from condensed formations and with lead blockers, unlike many ‘backs who played in spread sets in HS. Davis also seems to be able to get the hidden yards on the field in a similar way to Gaskin. While not a powerful or physical runner like Newton, Davis uses his agility and vision to avoid being tackled head-on, at which point he can then use his balance-through-contact to bounce off defenders for an extra few yards.

In the passing game, Davis seems to have adequate hands, but his utilization in the passing game at the HS level was limited. Fortunately, Gaskin and Ahmed have already shown that high-end receiving abilities are not a prerequisite for success, and merely adequate skills will do just fine. On a positive note, the staff made encouraging comments during bowl practices about Davis’ blitz pick-up and blocking skills developing quickly, so at a minimum he can provide some value on pass plays.

Despite making a few appearances last season, it is still somewhat of a mystery as to how the staff plans to utilize his talents. I suspect that a solid showing in camp can push Davis ahead of Pleasant, but barring an injury, I don’t expect Davis to eat into Newton or McGrew’s expected carries. His skill set, to my eye, does not warrant a special role within the offense in the same way that McGrew’s receiving or Newton’s short yardage ability does. Like Pleasant, Davis could provide value as an additional ‘back to soak up carries late in a game or on early downs. Long-term, Davis is well-positioned to be a feature ‘back for us given his versatile skill set, solid athletic traits, and no clear limiting factors.

Key Additions

Sam Adams II - 4-Star 2020 Recruit

Adams was the headliner for our 2020 running back recruits as a major local commitment. During his recruitment, I did a breakdown of Adams tape:

[Adams] is a natural football player with the instincts to credibly play RB, DB, WR and returner. What I find most exciting about his potential are his elite “RB traits” to go with his elite measurables. These traits are what separate truly elite RBs from elite athletes playing RB. Adams has excellent vision, footwork, balance, open field play making and receiving skills, the same traits that made Myles Gaskin a dominant player at UW despite his less than prototypical measurables. The vision and footwork allow Adams to consistently leverage the blocking and defensive flow to make the most of every play. Seeing the cutback lane on interior runs is difficult enough for most RBs, but having the turn-on-a-dime quickness and explosive acceleration to successfully pair with that vision much less common. The combination of those traits and athleticism would’ve been enough to make him a star in our system, but his 3-down ability is what could make Adams the type of player that elevates our whole offense.

At 6’2”, Adams has the frame to fill out into the 215-225 lb range that could reasonably withstand 30+ touches while filling every role from short yardage back to receiving back. Sometimes taller RBs have difficulty transitioning into short yardage roles because they have a higher center of gravity and don’t play behind their pads, but Adams plays with the downhill lean, balance, and acceleration through contact that are trademarks of the most physical downhill runners (think Marshawn Lynch, Ezekiel Elliot, etc.). On top of his running skills are his potentially underrated receiving skills. Adams is an electrifying receiver out of the backfield and the slot. He has catch-and-run abilities that could rival our Chico-type players, and he has the ball skills to make plays deep downfield in the seam... He conceivably has the ability to return a punt, catch a slot screen, run a seam route out of the backfield, then pound it into the end zone as the tailback in the I-formation all on one possession. I can definitely see why we are so high on him.

Ideally, we’d have Adams bulk up a little before asking him to shoulder a significant number of carries, and given Donovan’s preference to run a fairly tight rotation, the four non-freshman ‘backs should allow us to bring him on slowly. However, there’s an argument against that approach if the staff consider his special teams value and the likelihood that he doesn’t stay for a full five years. The open field vision, shiftiness, and ball skills that Adams has displayed in HS would make him an intriguing option in the return game that could use a shot in the arm, and his pure athleticism and experience playing defense could make him an upgrade on coverage units. That in and of itself would be enough value to burn a redshirt year. All of this is assuming that Adams is completely in the clear from any off-field issues.

Short-term I’m not expecting much out of Adams, but in the long-run, Adams should be viewed as a high-upside future feature ‘back. The log jam of talent ahead of him might limit his early impact, but that should sort itself out by 2021. Running back is also an easier position to find traction at, so don’t be surprised if an opportunity arises for him to break out ahead of time.

Jay’Veon Sunday - 3-Star 2020 Recruit

Sunday’s off-the-radar commitment stood in stark contrast to Adams’ recruitment, but I view him as a solid addition whose floor is as a rotational ‘back. This is what I had to say about Sunday in my last breakdown:

Stylistically, I think Sunday’s a slippery-yet-powerful interior runner. He seems to have a good understanding of how to use his off hand to fend off tackles, as well as how to run through traffic/contact. What’s differentiates Sunday from our past RBs is that he is much more of a strider than our previous RBs. He has a long and very pronounced stride that usually makes it difficult to run through contact and to make sudden cuts, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue for Sunday. I see his outside runs and I am reminded of Derrick Henry, not in size, but in how he attacks them. Neither are sudden/explosive runners, but they have sneaky long-speed that can out run angles on the perimeter and run behind their pads on interior runs.

In short, he seems to be less of a slasher and more of point-and-plow runner that could shine in a downhill power running role. He isn’t a huge RB (Pleasant and Newton are both heavier with bigger frames than Sunday), but looks to have good potential as a rotational guy that can soak up a lot of snaps in the 4-minute offense in a year or two.

For some added context, the breakdown above was written before his senior season, and I thought that he made good progress athletically. Sunday still won’t wow most, but long-speed is a secondary trait behind burst and short-area quickness as far as measureables go. Consistent 6 yard carries are as good as the occasional 40 yard run. His burst and quickness did seem to improve between his junior and senior seasons, and it looks like he’s continued to develop in the weight room. At only 196 lbs with good feet, but with all of the bruising physicality that he showed in HS, he could double down on his physical style and bulk into a Lavon Coleman type of ‘back. Arguably, this development approach is the best way to get a big ‘back on the roster since some big guys just don’t have the feet or know how to play up to their size (Pleasant for example). I’d expect him to redshirt this coming year to do so.

Given our roster situation and his skill set, I can see Sunday developing into a long-term spell running back, even if he may never quite get his shot at getting the lead role. Lavon Coleman is again someone who I think of. Like Coleman, Sunday could end up being a starting level ‘back that gets relegated to a significant complementary role.

Predicted Depth Chart

  1. Richard Newton
  2. Sean McGrew
  3. Cam Davis
  4. Kamari Pleasant
  5. Sam Adams II (Possible core special teams player)
  6. Jay’Veon Sunday (Probable redshirt)

That’s all for now (*I say realizing that this is approaching 3000 words), but follow me @Coach_808, and as always, Go Dawgs!