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WSU fall camp preview: Running backs

THE COUGS ARE stacked at running back -- no fewer than four could potentially start this season. That’s the jumping off point and it’s a great problem to have, lots of talent. The question, however, remains: how does Washington State maximize the quartet's production?

Returners:  Gerard Wicks (R-Jr., 6-0, 226);  Jamal Morrow (R-Jr., 5-9, 191, pictured above);  Keith Harrington (R-So., 5-8, 191); James Williams (R-Fr., 5-11, 195); Alijah Lee (R-So., 5-6, 193, walk on); Madigan Taulelei (R-Fr., 6-0, 207, walk on)

New faces:  Romello Harris (Fr., 5-10, 175)

Departed scholarship players: None

What to like: Or rather, what's not to like?  The Cougs have the most talent at the running back spot in years.

Wicks is a bruiser but he's also the fastest downhill runner in the group. This past season, he showed increased speed in gaining the edge and led WSU in rushing yards (107 carries, 610 hashes). He also more than doubled his catches, to 38 receptions from 16 the year before. And he looked very good this spring catching the ball out of the backfield.

Morrow simply does everything well.  Whether asked to go out in the pattern, stay home in max-protect or anything in between, he's extremely reliable. Morrow averaged 6.5 ypc this past season and caught 33 passes for 294 yards and four scores. Morrow also showed more of a burst this past season in breaking the line of scrimmage.

Harrington, who missed the spring, had a solid debut as a second-year freshman in 2015, catching 43 passes for 312 yards and three scores plus another 238 hashes on 37 carries. Ball security was an issue at times but the shifty 'back also did some excellent work out in space.

Williams has yet to play a game at WSU but his work on the scout team last year plus his spring game performance has created a lot of buzz in Cougar Nation. He's still only a second-year freshman and he'll need to polish some areas of his game, but he's been electrifying at times on the practice field.

Biggest question: The obvious one is how do the Cougs play four running backs on Saturdays -- or do they go with three like last year?  On first glance, it seems a running back rotation of three is about the max. And it may well turn out WSU sticks with a trio on game days. If one of the 'backs gets dinged up, that would also take care of things for that week. 

But here's why I'm not entirely convinced that's the only way WSU will go in 2016.

Running backs coach Jim Mastro is an innovator. He invented the pistol offense at Nevada with Chris Ault.  The guess here is he'll take a look in fall camp and beyond at creative packages that have all four of the running backs involved.  And should that comes to pass, it will give defensive coordinators just one more headache to try and solve when it comes to the Cougar offense.

Among the fall camp storylines:
As flush as the Cougs are here, this is still Mike Leach's Air Raid and that means throwing the ball -- WSU isn't this season going to suddenly double the number of running back carries (197 in 2015). But it may tick slightly up, it depends not only on how opponents line up to defend but also how fall camp plays out.

Fall camp also figures to offer an idea if the group will become an even bigger contributor in the passing game, though those contributions were substantial last year. Cougar running backs caught 114 passes for 734 hashes and 7 TDs in 2015.

With the talent ahead of him, Harris appears likely to be fitted for a redshirt. Even if, heaven forbid, a Cougar running back were to get dinged up, that redshirt might still stay on since Harris' senior season was cut short with a torn ACL. A full season in the program before his WSU debut might make the most sense long term.

This sets up to be a fun two-year stretch at running back for Washington State - there are no senior running backs on the roster.

NOTABLE NOTE:
Fall camp kicks off Aug. 6 in Lewiston.


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