Spring preview: New dynamic to Coug RB stable

WASHINGTON STATE THIS spring has the luxury of returning both of their primary running backs from a season ago in Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks. The 15-practice spring session will also see Keith Harrington with the running back corps. Will Harrington be able to duplicate the same dynamic success against the 1s and 2s that he had late last season in Thursday Night Football?

The Air Raid caters to running backs who can catch the ball -- it's never going to be about the ground yards gained in Mike Leach's offense no matter how much the media keeps grinding on it. So keep an eye this spring on which running backs look to have worked on their catching ability most this offseason.

Another thing to examine is who runs the best (and perhaps most) routes. Bottom line: the most versatile Cougar running back, reliable in the passing game and who can block for the quarterback when needed, figures to have a leg up this spring.

Harrington, who started out at WSU as a wide receiver, spent the latter part of his freshman year on the TNF squad drawing rave reviews from the staff as a running back.

A whirling dervish, he received a lot more reps after Squally Canada abruptly left the program -- and made great use of them. At 5-7 and 174 pounds, Harrington doesn't seem like a ground-and-pound type of back, but he still somehow picked up the tough yards, both extending drives and balancing the play calls to keep the defense honest.

His real strength is on the outside. He can make tacklers miss in open space (and did so in a big way against the young players in TNF). His his acceleration to the edge threatens a big play on every touch.

But can he make the same kind of impact against bigger, stronger, more veteran players? Morrow proved his strength in the open field on Saturdays in '14, while Wicks showed he has a nose for the end zone.

Both were reliable targets in the passing game with Morrow in particular showing a soft set of hands.

Morrow carried the ball only 87 times for 351 yards last season and did not score a single touchdown on the ground or via the air. However, and this is the big takeaway from last season in looking ahead to 2015, he set a WSU single-season record for receptions by a running back (61), and averaged 7.5 yards per catch. Morrow proved his value in the open field, making swift moves to gain extra yardage.

Wicks (pictured above) scored four touchdowns on the ground and carried the ball 62 times for 234 yards. He made 16 catches for 76 yards, and was more of a short-yardage back for the Cougars.

Will Morrow or Wicks soar to new heights as sophomores in 2015? Will Harrington become a change-of-pace type back and if so, how many touches does he figure to get? Can the Cougs effectively get the most out three running backs in the backfield -- or would two, or even one, be better? Those are all questions that don't have answers headed into spring ball.

The running backs should receive a boost this season because of a veteran offensive line. All five starters from last season return, and a few of the backups also received significant playing time.

The Cougars lose veteran Theron West, a redshirt senior last season. But after a good spring last year, he did not make much of an impact statistically and seemed to run into a wall on a majority of his carries. West finished with 21 carries for 88 rushing yards. Marcus Mason has also graduated, and will work out at Pro Day on March 12. Morrow and Wicks passed both of them by last season after Mason led the Cougars with 429 net rushing yards in 2013. Mason was a guy who could return kickoffs, although Morrow can play in that role, too.

Later this summer, James Williams out of Burbank High will arrive. He lost nearly all of his senior season to a knee injury. He has said he'a ahead of schedule and plans to be ready to go full tilt in fall camp. Williams ran the ball 164 times for 1,469 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior, and caught 22 passes for 482 yards and five touchdowns.

FINAL THOUGHT: Last season, walk on Thomas Hearn was employed at times as a fullback in Thursday Night Football. It remains to be seen if Leach may decide to go more towards that route in goal line or short yardage situations this spring.

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