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Spring Position Breakdown: Running Backs

Year 2 of RB Portal Fun

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Kent State at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Day 2 of our Spring Position Breakdowns, and we turn our attention to the running backs room. After last off season’s roster flip, Coach Lee Marks looks to build on last year’s quietly impressive season with another influx of Portal/HS talent and a full offseason to get last year’s young portal class up to speed.

2022 Season Refresher

Washington v Arizona State Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Looking back, the running backs did a lot better last season than it might’ve seemed in the moment. Heading into the season, it was reported that Taulapapa had the inside track for the RB1 spot due to his experience and well-rounded skill set, but everyone assumed that Cam Davis, or one of the more highly-touted RBs, would eventually take over based on their raw talent. However, once games got going and neither Taulapapa nor Davis really separated themselves, the focus shifted to the our record-setting passing offense, and we all failed to realize just how productive the running backs ended up being by the end of the season. Taulapapa finished less than 40 yards behind Rome Odunze for the team lead in scrimmage yards, and Davis finished in the top 5 on the team in scrimmage yards as well.

While the offense did skew towards Penix & our elite WR corps, we still maintained some semblance of balance, and we also spread the ball out pretty consistently. Rarely did any of our backs receive more than 15 touches in a game, and we rarely saw highlight runs that drew attention to the backfield. Instead, we got efficiency, solid pass protection, few turnovers/mistakes, and a perfect complement to the passing game. Its also worth noting that the run game seemed to find its groove as the season progressed and once defenses started to key in on the passing attack. 4 of Taulapapa’s 5 best yards per carry performances were in the last 4 games of the season, including 3 of his 4 100+ yard performances. If next season’s lead back can pick up where he left off, we’ll be in good hands.

Current Roster & Notable Arrivals/Departures

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Valero Alamo Bowl Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Departures: Wayne Taulapapa (Exhausted Eligibility), Jay’Veon Sunday (Portal)

Turning our attention to this Spring and the 2023 season, we first have to take stock of our RB stable. As a grad transfer, Taulapapa is now training for an NFL opportunity after one successful year as our top RB. In my opinion, especially with hindsight, Taulapapa was a perfect Portal pick up in the staff’s first off season. He was an experienced transfer who was capable of producing with or without the ball in his hands. He immediately established himself as the best pass protector in the RB room, and that allowed the staff to build the best version of the offense with the roster that they inherited. He was also a transfer whose one-year of remaining eligibility allowed them to take a risk on a lower rated transfer while still planning for long-term upgrades to the talent at the position.

RS freshman Jay’Veon Sunday also departs from Montlake and entered the portal after the season. Sunday was brought in under the Jimmy Lake staff, and it was long-speculated whether his physical, downhill running style and one-dimensional skill set was a good fit for our new offense. His career on Montlake never gained traction, but we wish him the best at Abilene Christian.

For both departing RBs, their departures were to be expected and should not have long-term impacts to Coach Marks’ plans.

Colorado v Washington Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Returning: Cam Davis, Richard Newton, Sam Adams II, Will Nixon, Aaron Dumas

The return of Cam Davis, Richard Newton, and Sam Adams II was a bit of a surprise to most fans, but it was a welcomed one. After multiple seasons of action as rotational players, it was assumed that at least one of Davis/Newton would look elsewhere for greater opportunity. Davis had already been passed over for the RB1 spot by a transfer once (Taulapapa), and there was little doubt that we were going to find another Portal RB this offseason. For Newton, he had already built a resume that was comparable to Taulapapa’s when he left UVA, and after a few significant injuries and multiple staffing changes, most fans would’ve been supportive of him if he decided to chase his dreams elsewhere. Adams’ case was a little different. He had arrived to campus as a talented local recruit who it seemed might be a perfect fit for the offense, but after three seasons of sparse play, a little frustration would be warranted.

Regardless, all three are back and they have the makings of a dangerous running back committee. Davis brings the best combination of experience and multi-faceted skill set of the three. He’s already earned the staff’s trust, and he’s a known commodity as an above average RB2 at worst. Newton similarly brings experience to the table and might be the most dangerous pure rusher of the returning backs. His violent slasher rushing style brings a different dynamic to the offense, but he hasn’t earned many reps with the current staff. For the second or third offseason now, his path to playing time will likely hinge on his ability to stay healthy and become a reliable contributor in the passing game (blocking and/or receiving).

After the seasoned vets, its a tougher read on the situation. As mentioned before, Adams seems to be a perfect fit for Grubb’s offense. He showed lots of potential as a receiving threat out of the backfield when he was coming out of HS, and he was a dynamic weapon with the ball in his hands. He has the size and athleticism that every team is looking for, and he was starting to earn snaps at times this past season. However, with little recent tape to base a projection off of, its tough to figure out what exactly a successful off season of development would look like for Adams. Nixon is in a similar position. Nixon was another one of last year’s transfer backs who was touted as a receiving RB, but after getting a few snaps early in the season, Nixon didn’t make much noise down the stretch. He wasn’t quite as highly rated coming out of HS as Adams, but they’ve got a similar amount of experience in the offense and likely have similar standings within the room.

Rounding out the returnees is Aaron Dumas. Views on Dumas are all over the map. After transferring from New Mexico last Spring and dominating the snap counts through all of Spring Practices, Dumas failed to register any snaps during the season. The rash of injuries last Spring set up him up as a red herring, and I’m not expecting him to provide much more than depth this coming year. While he posted a solid freshman season at New Mexico, his pure talent might not be up to par for a program with CFP aspirations, and he lacks a specific skill that might otherwise separate him from the rest of the pack.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Mississippi State at Ole Miss Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arrivals: Dillon Johnson (Mississippi State), Daniyel Ngata (ASU), Tybo Rogers (HS)

Speaking of unique skill sets, Dillon Johnson, formerly of Mississippi State, headlines an incoming RB class that is big on defining traits. Johnson was likely the #1 transfer RB target for UW this offseason, and for good reason. With almost 150 career receptions and over 2000 career scrimmage yards in the SEC, Johnson is the type of multi-faceted talent that can keep defenses off balance within the framework of our existing offense. Johnson isn’t the most dynamic pure rusher, and he reminds me a lot of Taulapapa with the ball in his hands. He has good vision that will lead him to space, and his combination of quickness and contact balance earns him the hidden yards in every play. I don’t expect him to be a 1200 yard rusher at UW, but 800 yards rushing & 400 yards passing is well within reach.

Tybo Rogers has a similar yet completely different skill set than Johnson, but there’s a reason why he was our top RB target out of HS. Where as Johnson’s receiving skills were primarily featured out of the backfield in Mike Leach’s Air Raid Offense, Rogers’ receiving skills were honed out wide as well. Playing both RB & WR, Rogers led his team in both rushing & receiving until he got hurt during his senior year. Playing as a vertical threat at WR is a completely different skill set than running swing routes out of the backfield, and having a this caliber of athlete (he’s got a different gear) with an RB level of playmaking ability and WR receiving ability is rare. Grubb’s offense is unique in how frequently it places position players in unique alignments to draw advantageous mismatches. One of Grubb’s favorites is an empty set with RBs & TEs on the perimeter to get our top WRs open out of the slot. This usually means that the RBs are just decoys, but imagine if we had a legitimate receiving threat at RB who could mix it up with CBs out wide. Depending on how quickly he can bounce back from his HS injury, Rogers could make a push for early rotational playing time.

Finally, we have Danyiel Ngata from ASU. After missing on him out of HS, Ngata comes full circle to play for the Huskies on Montlake where his older brother Ariel started his career. The former top 150 recruit has the talent and pedigree to be a dynamic talent at UW, but he hasn’t been able to find his footing just yet in college. He’s been a rotational back for the Sun Devils for the last three seasons, and he’s shown flashes of the dynamic rusher he was in HS, but he never really took the proverbial next step in Tempe. Like almost all of the RBs Marks has brought in since arriving, Ngata has experience as both a receiver out of the backfield and out of other alignments, but what is different about Ngata is his pure rushing ability. When he’s featured in a quick hitting or wide zone rushing attack where he can make one cut and go, he can gash a defense. He gets extra yards more with his quickness and agility than his ability to break tackles, but if he can get into space, he’s the type of back that can get the highlight yards. I’m not sure where he fits into the pecking order with so many seasoned vets on the roster, but if he fits in as RB2 or RB3, then you will know we have a talented group.

Things to Look Out For

As we start to get practice reports this Spring, I’d be on the look out for any mention of pass protection out of this group. Unlike last year, we don’t have a clear read on who the best pass protector is in this group. Taulapapa wouldn’t have been the obvious pick there last season if it weren’t for the noted deficiencies of the competition. I wouldn’t have picked it as the key factor in the competition last year, but it was important enough that it kept more dynamic talents on the sidelines, so its clearly an important consideration.

Something else to look out for is how Grubb decides to capitalize on the talent in the room. We’ve clearly upgraded the receiving talent in the RB room, but the RBs only accounted for 55 receptions last year our top 3 WRs accounted for nearly 4 times as many. If we maintain a similar target share, run/pass split, and no one separates themselves as a pass protector, then the better pure runners like Newton and Ngata might have an edge in the competition. Of course, it also depends on who wins the iOL competition. An offensive line with Nate Kalepo and Julius Buelow at the guard spots isn’t likely to be running a ton of outside zone or pin & pull concepts, so keep that in the back of your mind.

What are you looking for/forward to out of the RB room? Let me know in the comments below.