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Spring Position Preview: Running Backs

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Is this the year a bell cow emerges from the stable?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 21 Las Vegas Bowl - Boise State v Washington

Spring Practice for our Huskies is just around the corner, so its time to run it back and take stock of our roster, position by position. Today it’s all about the running backs, and if we’re going to do as Jimmy Lake says and “Run the Damn Ball” we’ll need to see our ‘backs capitalize on all their talent. Fortunately, Spring Practice is a perfect time for these guys to develop into a more dynamic group.

Position Overview

Funny enough, I was looking back through the archive from last year to get some context on our thoughts of the group before last season, and I realized my first real post here at UWDP was breaking down the running backs ahead of what should’ve been Fall Camp. A lot has changed since then, and yet at the same time, not much has changed.

Key Departures:

NONE

Spring Additions:

Caleb Berry, FR

Anticipated Summer Additions:

NONE

On the personnel front, since last summer, our running back stable hasn’t really changed much. With the NCAA giving the eligibility mulligan for the 2020-2021 season, both of our 5th year seniors (McGrew & Pleseant) were allowed to return for their 6th seasons with the program. Barring any unforeseen departures in the next few weeks, we will head into Spring Practices with every single running back from the 2020 season returning. On the incoming end, we signed Caleb Berry out of Lufkin, Texas in the 2021 recruiting class as our only additional scholarship running back. Lots of teams see roster changes after Spring Practices reshuffle the anticipated depth chart, but we have a deep enough roster where I don’t anticipate us making a move to do anything in the transfer portal.

What has changed since last Summer/Fall is our understanding of how Coach Donovan & Coach Bhonapha will utilize the ‘backs on the roster. After seeing Richard Newton step up in the second half of the 2019 season, we were fully anticipating a breakout year from him in 2020. However, we instead saw a pretty deep rotation of running backs vie for carries, and a surprisingly prominent role for Kamari Pleasant, who had largely been buried on the depth chart until last season.

Outside of the running back by committee approach, we also saw a more versatile role for ‘backs in the offense (rushing, receiving, and blocking) than we had seen in recent years under Hamdan. It’s been rumored that the wider array of responsibilities has had a direct impact on the division of snaps with Newton getting supplanted by more versatile, if possibly less dynamic options, like Pleasant. That’s not to say that pure rushing ability won’t be valued. Just that the overall focus on the running backs within the offense will require a more diverse skill set to unlock the offense.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the roster.

Spring 2021 Washington Huskies Tight Ends

Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Name Jersey # Height Weight Class
Jack Westover 37 6'3" 245 lbs Jr
Zeke Pelluer 39 6'4" 255 lbs So
Carson Smith 42 6'4" 250 lbs So
Mason West 80 6'4" 225 lbs R-Fr
Mark Redmond 81 6'6" 245 lbs R-Fr
Devin Culp 83 6'3" 245 lbs Jr
Cade Otton 87 6'5" 240 lbs Sr
Caden Jumper 6'3" 250 lbs Fr
Quentin Moore 6'5" 245 lbs So
Spring 2021

Main Rotation:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Arizona at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sean McGrew (6th Yr, 5-7, 175 lbs)

Kamari Pleasant (6th Yr, 6-0, 230 lbs)

Richard Newton (rJR, 6-0, 210 lbs)

Taking stock of the returning running back production, these three ‘backs represent ~87% of the returning HB snaps and rushing yards, as well as being the only three players to accrue over 100 rushing yards last season. McGrew & Pleasant were pretty clearly RB1 & RB1a from a utilization standpoint, playing nearly even snaps (54 to 46) and receiving a similar number of carries (43 to 35). PFF even graded them similarly with overall grades of 75.3 and 69.8 respectively.

McGrew succeeding shouldn’t have been a huge surprise last year. We’ve been waiting for him to breakout for a couple of years now, and his dynamic rushing and strong pass protection really solidified a sizeable role for him last year. He’s not the most talented, nor does he have a defining trait, but his value is that he is capable of executing the entire offense as he lacks a glaring deficiency.

Pleasant’s rise on the other hand was much more unexpected, but he rose up the depth chart for the exact same reason as McGrew. Pleasant did not have a single glaring weakness last season. While less dynamic of a rusher than McGrew, Pleasant was a pretty efficient receiver with 7 catches on 9 targets for 67 yards (nearly 5x the production as McGrew). These are small sample sizes, but there’s a case to be made that Pleasant was the most versatile ‘back we had. However, that does not mean his spot in the rotation is safe. There’s a real chance that some of the younger ‘backs surpass him this spring if he doesn’t show improve his pass blocking and receiving to compensate for his solid, yet unspectacular rushing.

Newton is the big question mark that can swing everything in the running back room. I still think that Newton is the most talented/dynamic pure rusher we have on the roster. His blend of power, explosiveness, vision, and speed is way out ahead of any of the other ‘backs on the roster. He tied McGrew with 5.3 yards/carry, and he the most yards after contact per attempt among the ‘backs with 4.3. He’s shown flashes of being a decent receiving threat, and he’s also one of the most experienced options in the stable. However, his Achilles heel has been that he’s a total liability in pass protection. PFF gave him a grade of 17.6 for pass blocking (for reference McGrew led the ‘backs with a 77.6). Working his pass protection back up to being simply mediocre could push him up to RB1 feature ‘back status. This spring will be critical for his career trajectory as this is likely his last chance to assume feature ‘back status ahead of the youngsters in the wings.

Potential Breakout:

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Davis (rSO, 6-0, 205 lbs)

Sam Adams II (rFR, 6-1, 190 lbs)

Jay’Veon Sunday (rFR, 6-0, 200 lbs)

Cameron Davis is the guy to keep an eye on here. Hypothetically all three of these guys should have a similar shot at rising up the depth chart, but with essentially zero snaps turning over since last season, it should be expected that Davis gets a first crack at additional snaps since he’s the only one with any live snaps. Here’s what I had to say about him heading into last season:

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.

Lacking much more tape on Davis from his limited reps this past season, I’ll have to really stick to my initial evaluation, but it bodes well that positive comments about his developing pass blocking and decent hands (5 for 5 for a respectable 26 yards last season). His added athleticism and rushing ability could make him a candidate to vault past Pleasant as the do-everything back in the main rotation.

Adams & Sunday’s best shot at breaking into the main rotation would more likely be to excel in a particular role in the rotation. Adams was probably the most dynamic HS receiving threat among the running backs (and I’m talking about all the running backs). If he can master enough of the offense to be a multi-faceted rushing-receiving weapon, it’ll be hard to fend him off from taking over the 3rd down role (and maybe even a role in 2-back sets). His ceiling is still probably RB3/4 this season, but after Davis, Adams has the clearest path to feature ‘back status.

Sunday on the other hand is much more of a pure rusher. I don’t quite see him as a more talented rusher than Davis, Newton, or McGrew, but if he can prove that he isn’t an absolute liability in pass protection, there’s a path for him to get reps in the 4-minute offense or in a short yardage role. I’m not expecting a ton of production from him heading into next year, but he’s certainly a capable ‘back to keep in the wings.

Redshirt/Reserves:

Caleb Berry (FR, 6-2, 210 lbs)

Javon Forward (rFR, 6-0, 225 lbs)

Capassio Cherry (SO, 5-8, 195 lbs)

Christian Galvan (rFR, 5-7, 190 lbs)

Barring a 50-pt domination, we should be cheering for every game that we don’t see guys on the field. With 6 guys ahead of Berry, there should be no reason why he can’t use his redshirt to get back to 100% and really get after the S&C program. Donovan seems to think that a big ‘back is important for his offense, and he has the potential to be a prototypical power back in our rotation. As for the rest of the reserve running backs, expectations aren’t high, but that doesn’t mean they can’t shoot to exceed them.

The one walk-on that I have my eye on is Christian Galvan. I don’t know if its his size, number, or play style, but he’s got a lot of qualities that remind me of McGrew. He’s got some speed to maintain separation in the open field, and he’s incredibly shifty in tight spaces. He’s a pretty small ‘back, but he’s shown off a nifty spin move and contact balance that makes me think he can overcome the size problem. Add in some pretty solid hands, and he just might have what it takes to make it happen at this level.

Storylines to Watch:

  • Can Richard Newton find his way out of the doghouse?
  • Can Kamari Pleasant capitalize on a breakout season to stay ahead of the talented underclassmen?
  • Will the log jam at the top of the depth chart push guys into the Portal?
  • How will the ‘backs on the roster adjust to Donovan’s ground-n-pound sets? Or does Donovan adjust to accommodate the skill sets of the smaller ‘backs he inherited?
  • Will Donovan & Bhonapha go with a feature ‘back if someone separates themselves?

Let me know what you’ll be watching for in Spring Practices in the comments below.

And as always,

Go Dawgs