WSU Running Backs: Fall Camp Preview

WASHINGTON STATE faces an interesting question at running back this fall camp and on into the 2015 season: How do you split up the touches between a trio of ‘backs while getting the most production out of all three?

Notice that I didn’t say carries. I said touches.

Mike Leach is never going to run the ball as much as other schools do. It’s never going to happen. But he does want his running backs to lead the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards. Jamal Morrow’s 61 receptions last year wasn’t only the most ever by a running back at WSU, it was last season’s second-most in the nation for a running back.

Morrow’s 7.5 ypc was solid but ideal would be an increase of about 25 percent – just like in 2008 at Texas Tech when Graham Harrell was Leach’s quarterback and the top two running backs averaged 10.6 and 10.3 ypc.

Gerard Wicks had the best spring of the running backs in terms of rushing the ball (it should be noted Morrow was not a full participant in the spring). The big question for Wicks in fall camp is if he can become more of a receiving force in the offense. Wicks had 16 catches for 76 yards last season.

Wicks is a powerful runner but he’s also the fastest of the three running backs expected to see the field this season. But he can do more than just run between the tackles. Getting him out in space where he can then square up his shoulders and run downhill will be critical in ‘15. Several times last season Wicks was tracked down before he could get to the perimeter. If he and the o-line can rectify that, his numbers will see a significant boost.

Both Wicks and Morrow are third-year sophomores but fellow running back Keith Harrington is about to make his game day debut as a second-year freshman. Harrington saw a lot of reps in the spring with running backs coach Jim Mastro looking to find out what Harrington can do, coach up any deficits and formulate the plan on how best to utilize his talents.

Harrington is jittery, the quickest of the three ‘backs from 0-10 yards. He was exceptional in last fall’s Thursday Night Lights after being moved from WR to RB. As expected, he was contained more this spring going against veteran competition. He did rip off 85 yards on six carries in a spring scrimmage, but then struggled all-around the next practice (blitz pick-up, receiving and rushing).

Nevertheless, Harrington showed this spring CougFans should expect him to break some long gainers on Saturdays in ‘15, by land and by air.

WSU IS LIKELY to run more this season. The Cougs could go under center as much as 25 percent this season, Leach has said, and while they’ll still pass out of that formation it should lead to more run calls.

I don’t think the total number of carries will be hugely different -- but it might still feel that way.

I think early on this season, you’re going to see Leach challenge the running backs and o-line with a more run calls in the red zone and closer to the goal line. And that’s because the o-line has every starter back and 17 of 18 o-linemen on scholarship a year ago. That alone means WSU should be able to run more effectively. Any college football coach will tell you the most improvement is realized between the first and second playing season, so expect more from Morrow and Wicks too. And if WSU does run the ball more effectively, Leach will go to the run more often. But Leach won’t stick with it if it can’t move the chains. Hence, I think you’ll see the early season test.

True freshman James Williams (5-11, 185) is a likely redshirt candidate unless he takes fall camp by storm or injuries strike. Walk ons include second-year freshman Alijah Lee and true freshman Madigan Taulelei.

Mastro told CF.C in early July all three backs graded “outstanding” in the mid-summer weight room report. Where he’s looking for improvement when fall camp gets underway Saturday:

Morrow – more explosiveness, make people miss more.

Wicks – work better through fatigue, make yards on the perimeter.

Harrington – take an education from mistakes, don’t let it adversely affect the next play.

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