Countdown to Spring: Cougars RB Preview

PULLMAN -- With a deeper crop of running backs and presumably a more productive offensive line, is this the year the Cougar ground game blossoms and takes some pressure off of the Air Raid passing attack? Will the starting running back be on the field this spring -- or will he not arrive until the fall? What about blocking, and catching passes out in the flat? We take a look at all that and more…

The Cougs ranked 120th in rushing in 2012 -- that's good for dead last. It should be noted the Cougs also had games where they attempted fewer than 10 rushes. WSU completely abandoned the running game at times -- leading the nation in fewest rushing attempts with 252 (and that number includes the 57 sacks.)

And so the running back position may hold more uncertainty than any other position headed into spring ball. With a flock of candidates and perhaps limited opportunities, running backs coach Jim Mastro will have his work cut out for him in choosing the most productive, able-bodied ball-carrier set for the Air Raid offense.

Chances are the Cougs will again handle the job with a ‘running back by committee' approach, but who gets the starting nod in 2013?

Last season, freshman Teondray Caldwell did a good job in most categories, but durability issues raised questions as to whether or not he could handle the load of the feature back role. Caldwell offers a good blend of size and speed and when healthy, his burst out of the backfield is extremely valuable in a spread offense.

In one respect, Caldwell quietly had an impressive, albeit short and accentuated, 2012 campaign. The Los Angeles native averaged almost five yards-per-carry (YPC). Not bad considering Washington State as a team averaged just 1.38 YPC as a team.

Listed at 5-8, 189 in 2012, Caldwell now looks bigger and in better shape when seen on campus this spring, and should seemingly get first crack at the starting job when spring drills begin March 21.

Redshirt senior Leon Brooks may also get a more extended look, though from the chair he looks to serve primarily as a return specialist on kick and punt returns. Brooks received just twelve carries in 2012, averaging 6.5 YPC (though that number is weighted by a forty-yard scamper against Cal). Brooks (5-7, 165) may simply be too small to shoulder the burden of an extended work load, thus suggesting he better fits the ‘change of pace' role.

Similar to Brooks, redshirt junior Theron West (5-7, 171) is a small back reliant on quick, shifty bursts to keep defenders off-balance.

West is a burner, and that cannot be undersold. When given a gap, West can take it the distance. Due to his size, West is unlikely to handle a great deal of carries every game, and appears more of a situational rather than feature back.

The coaches also had some issues with West during his redshirt year in 2012, most notably holding on to the football. West visibly had issues securing the ball during the Thursday Night Football portions of practice, something he'll need to shore up if he expects to see the field at all in 2013. West could also work on his hands out of the backfield if he hopes to see extended time with the offense. His presumed contribution on special teams in 2013 might be where his true value lays.

Junior Marcus Mason, seemingly the forgotten man since the last coaching regime left house, had a hard time getting time during practice, let alone seeing in-game action. After the injury bug began to ravage the Cougs backfield, Mason began to get some looks in practice, and ended up finishing 2012 with 12 carries for a paltry 15 yards. Mason's longest run of the year was just four yards, and it remains to be seen if he'll be in the plans for 2013.

If Mason proves to be a valuable asset, his most appreciated contributions may come in the form of pass-catching out of the backfield. The Etiwanda, Calif., product has good hands, as is evidenced by his 14 receptions in 2012. Mason may prove valuable in the screen game, and as a situational back.

A few other returnees looking to crack the two-deeps, all walk-ons, include junior Jeremiah Laufasa, and redshirt sophomores Manuel Lamson and Kyle Lappano. All three played primarily on the scout team offense last season, but failed to make any noise and there were just too many bodies ahead of them. For what it's worth, Lamson got the most extended look when durability became an issue in the backfield.

One other item to note this spring - freshman Robert Lewis, a greyshirt wide receiver holdover from 2012, could figure some into the mix, though not as a true running back per se. Lewis (5-10, 155) has obvious shortcomings in the size department but his speed and unprecedented lateral agility should make it difficult for coaches to keep him off the field in some capacity. As a slot/option hybrid, he could prosper coming out of the backfield in certain situations.

The Cougs haven't been able to claim they were a top 100 rushing attack since 2006, showing just how decrepit the ground game has been in recent years.

Mike Leach's pass-happy scheme demands a variety of skill sets from its running backs. Not only does the feature back have to possess the ability to pound the rock, but arguably more importantly, he must be able to pass block and catch the ball out of the backfield.

The New Guy
It may take until fall to find the key to Washington State's success on the ground this season.

Redshirt senior Daniel Jenkins, a transfer from Arizona, had 67 carries in 2012 for the Wildcats, averaging 4.4 YPC. Jenkins clearly wanted the opportunity to be the lead back in a high-scoring offense, visibly overshadowed by uber-talented senior Ka'Deem Carey at Arizona.

Jenkins, a former three-star prospect coming out of Rancho Verde High (Moreno Valley, Calif.), shows solid cutback ability and hits the hole with authority. He should battle Caldwell once he arrives prior to fall camp.

Another thing going for Jenkins is his blocking ability. Since arriving in Tucson, Jenkins has developed a keen ability to pass-block, a quality any coach will be smitten about when on display – and especially one who runs a pass-oriented offense.

The Freshmen
Leach and crew won't be able to feast their eyes this spring on true freshmen Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow, though both figure to make an immediate impact come fall camp.

Wicks (5-10, 195) has Pac-12 running back's body, and he too should come in and battle for immediate playing time from the time he steps on campus. Wicks has that one-cut ability that translates well to the spread offense, especially on stretch and toss plays. One of Wicks most underplayed attributes is his ability to block out of the backfield, a characteristic not usually as developed in running backs coming straight out of high school where they were star carriers of the pigskin.

Morrow is another promising recruit, having averaged almost 10 YPC his senior season at Heritage High (Menifee, Calif.). Morrow is a multidimensional, versatile athlete who could end up playing corner or slot receiver if the backfield becomes too crowded or if his skills in those other areas reign supreme.

While the Cougs don't appear to have any world-beaters in the backfield this spring, the rushing attack should be improved and should yield more generous results. They instances of 2nd- and 3rd-and-long should be far fewer, and the rushing attack should produce at a more consistent level this season. A more improved, bigger offensive line should help the guide the way for this years' backs in space.

But expect another year of running back-by-committee -- each and every ball carrier has something different to offer.

Unless, of course, there are some surprises this spring.

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