Earth, Wind, Fire - and Water? Spring preview: WSU running backs

EARTH, WIND, FIRE – and Water? The nickname assigned to the Cougar running backs might need to feature one more element, at least for spring drills at Washington State.

Running back is arguably the deepest position on offense heading into spring ball (begins March 24). The only other position on offense that can compete depth-wise is wide receiver.

Cougar ‘backs Gerard Wicks,  Keith Harrington and Jamal Morrow, dubbed Earth, Wind and Fire, will have a fourth running back competing for turns this spring in rising second-year freshman James Williams.

Williams starred last season in Thursday Night Football, particularly when he got out in space. It should not be forgotten he’ll face greater competition in going against the 1s and 2s this spring, as opposed the youth of TNF.  That said, Williams’ ability to plant and go, with speed, has many a Cougar fan projecting big things for him and possibly as soon as the 2016 season.

Running backs coach Jim Mastro has already said he won’t use a four-man rotation when the season begins – but all indications are he will be utilizing all four in the backfield during spring drills. Indeed, the spring session could determine what the Cougs do at running back in going forward this offseason.

The most prevalent scenario posited on the CF.C message boards: some CougFans think Harrington might move to the slot when it’s all said and done. But Mastro, and Mike Leach, like what Harrington did coming out of the backfield in his first season playing on Saturdays. And no wonder, Harrington had 43 receptions in ’15, tied for fourth-most on the team, and though his carriers were modest (37) he churned out 6.5 ypc. 

Harrington was but one piece of a resurgent 2015 Cougar backfield.  WSU took all of six games to surpass the previous season’s rushing total, finishing with 1,195 ground yards after compiling 680 hashes the year before and an average of 6.1 ypc. 

Morrow led the Cougars with 6.5 ypc. Out of all the Cougar backs, he comes into the spring as Mtr. All-Around, the guy who does everything well.

Wicks eraned the most touches last season, with 107 rushing attempts and 38 pass receptions. And Wicks truly blossomed in 2015 as a third-year sophomore, upping his yards per carry to 5.7 from 3.8 his freshman campaign.  His increased confidence was apparent, from how much faster he gained the corner to how hard he delivered the blow when cranking out the tough yards.

All three of the returnees have things they need to polish up this spring. Wicks can do a better job of being assignment perfect play-in and play-out. Morrow can help himself in evolving from a jack-of-all-trades into the best in as many categories as he can. Harrington had some fumble issues last season and needs to understand when to get two more yards, rather than losing two in trying to hit the home run. Meanwhile, Williams wants to show he not only belongs, but belongs in the starting conversation. And all four can improve on their blocking.

Leach cares most about all-purpose yards, not rushing yards, when it comes to his running backs.  WSU last year took a good-sized step in that area. Collectively, the group averaged 148 all-purpose ypg. 

But both Mastro and Leach want more – leading the league in all-purpose yards is the goal. That quest begins this spring.

So does the spring end with Mastro deciding on his three-man rotation?  Does it instead carry on into fall camp?  Does one of the running backs ultimately move to another spot, or does one become a hybrid type in keeping defenses off balance by lining up at several spots during a game?   Do the Cougs keep all four at running back, with different three-man rotations over the course of the season, with a different running back potentially starring in any given week?

All good questions.  The upcoming 15 practice sessions, in a deep and highly competitive 2016 Cougar backfield, promises to make for great theater this spring.

RELATED STORY: WSU releases spring schedule

While none are expected to supplant the above four on the depth chart, the Cougs have a solid trio of running back walk ons who could see some time to shine in the spring: Alijah LeeKillian Page and Madigan Taulelei. All three are sophomores.

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