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Spring Position Preview: Running Backs

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DeBoer, Davis, and Dumas Drive Defensive Doubts

NCAA Football: Washington at Stanford Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

While the Kalen DeBoer offense promises to bring a more modern passing attack to Montlake, the running back position remains vital to his system and to the Dawgs’ prospects. Fortunately for the new staff, the RB cupboard is far from bare. Their task will be to sort through a crowded room to determine whose skills best fit what they want the position to accomplish.

2021 Review

The running backs’ collective performance last season was a good microcosm for the problems with the team at large. The squad was full of players who were top-rated recruits, amassed solid stats in prior seasons, or both. Yet the scheme depressed their performance nearly across the board and the player usage seemed more emblematic of knee jerk reactions than a coherent strategy.

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

Sean McGrew led the team with 434 yards, but he mysteriously couldn’t get on the field for long stretches at the start and end of the season. His 3.9 YPC average was a steep regression from the 4.5, 6.2, and 5.3 YPC he averaged over his previous three seasons. The persistent and predictable A-gap runs that miscast pulling linemen as road-graders contributed to McGrew’s diminished performance, as did the sporadic participation. Cameron Davis had the next most carries, but also failed to crack 4 YPC (3.6) and struggled to hold onto the ball. Richard Newton (3.5 YPC) fit the same mold until an injury prematurely ended his season. Jay’veon Sunday saw a smattering of playing time late in the season but barely eked out a yard per carry.

The brightest spot among the running backs was Kamari Pleasant. The journeyman steadily worked his way up the depth chart through his lengthy UW career and finished with 308 yards on a team-best 5.4 YPC. Pleasant also stood out in the PFF grades with a position-best 79.0, bolstered by strong performances in the pass game. Despite his diminished stats, McGrew came in as the second best back at 72.4, though he expectedly fell behind on blocking downs. The younger backs- Davis, Newton, and Sunday- trailed behind in a morass of mediocrity.

2022 Outlook

If you’re feeling particularly charitable to Jimmy Lake and John Donovan (and why would you?), you could explain the playing time allocation as a desire to develop for the future. If the performances in fall camp was even close, it would be better for the program’s long-term health if the likes of Davis and Newton could get in-game reps and definitively overtake McGrew and Pleasant, who wouldn’t be with the team beyond 2021 anyway. What we got was the worst of both worlds. Davis showed little progress, Newton suffered a career-altering injury, and McGrew and Pleasant ended up getting much of their playing time in a dead-end season anyway. So where does that leave the team in 2022?

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

DeBoer’s Fresno State offenses from the last two seasons give us some idea of how he likes to use his running backs. In both seasons, Ronnie Rivers served as the unquestioned lead back and primarily ceded carries to exactly one additional back in the rotation- Jordan Mims. The two rushers combined for 59 receptions last year, so being able to catch the ball out of the backfield is a must. Rivers weighs in at 195 lbs and Mims at 200, so a smaller back like McGrew does not appear to be DeBoer’s prototype. Additionally, both backs broke off 50+ yard runs, which UW did not manage for the entire year, so some breakaway speed would be preferred.

In short, a DeBoer running back should not be a minus in size, speed, or pass catching. Fortunately, the Dawgs do return a player of that ilk in Davis. Despite his poor overall numbers, Davis managed to snag 14 passes in limited playing time. The discouraging yardage totals can’t be ignored, but the poor scheme had a large impact on those numbers. Davis will have to clean up his ball-control issues to become the lead runner. Nonetheless, coaches and media raved about Davis last fall and he looked so good going into the year that he was featured in the opening games against Montana and Michigan.

While the rest of the running back room is loaded with blue chip recruits- Sam Adams, Caleb Berry, and Emeka Megwa will all be trying to earn playing time in addition to Davis, Newton, and Sunday-, the sheer numbers were not enough to dissuade the coaching staff from bringing in a transfer. Aaron Dumas only just completed his freshman year at New Mexico before joining the Dawgs. He tallied a respectable 658 yards on 4.8 YPC and improved his production as the season went on. DeBoer saw his speed up close when Dumas broke off a 63-yard TD for the Lobos’ only score against Fresno St. At 5’11”, 190 lbs, he fits the physical mold of what DeBoer and Ryan Grubb used at FSU. Oddly, Dumas did not catch a single pass for New Mexico, though his timeshare partner Bobby Cole only had 29 receiving yards, so RB passes appear to be deemphasized in the UNM offense.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Between Davis and Dumas, the Dawgs have two backs with some experience who can do what DeBoer and Grubb want their running backs to do. What does that mean for the rest of the RB room? It would not surprise me to see one or even two rushers transfer in the spring because sitting fifth or sixth on a depth chart that goes two deep is not a recipe for a breakout season. Berry is a transfer candidate as a 225 lb. power back who does not fit what DeBoer has utilized in the past. Adams is a legacy Huksy. His ties to the team might be stronger, but it’s hard to see much playing time in his near future. Newton might wait to make a decision until he regains full health. His lack of straight-line speed might mean his best path to a lead role could be elsewhere.

Megwa is one I expect to stick around and the best bet of the group to leapfrog his way into playing time. Though he is only a freshman, he has the body of a full-grown Mr. Olympia. His high school tape shows a player more mature than his years and he enrolled early to get a head start on the college experience. Everything about his make-up signals a fast track.

Projected Depth Chart

Starter: Cam Davis

Rotation: Aaron Dumas

Backups with regular playing time: Emeka Megwa, Jay’veon Sunday, Richard Newton (when healthy)

Depth: Caleb Berry, Sam Adams

Poll

Which RB combo will lead UW in carries?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Davis-Dumas
    (75 votes)
  • 28%
    Davis-Other
    (83 votes)
  • 27%
    Dumas-Other
    (80 votes)
  • 18%
    Other-Other (No Davis or Dumas)
    (54 votes)
292 votes total Vote Now