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Here's why Cougar running backs group could be about to make history this season

IT’S MOSTLY ESCAPED notice but the Washington State running backs this past season produced a pair of head-turning numbers under Mike Leach. In 2017, my guess is the Cougar 'backs are poised to make another large-sized splash, but in a different area.

Most fans are aware Washington State’s running backs last season rushed for the most yards ever in the Leach era (1,634). But here are two numbers from the 2016 season that have not received the same amount of attention:

1. Among Pac-12 running back groups last season in yards from scrimmage, Washington State's 2,649 hashes trailed only Stanford’s 2,779 (with Christian McCaffrey accounting for 1,913). 

2. WSU posted the second-most rushing attempts ever (362) for a Mike Leach team, trailing only his 2002 Texas Tech squad (385). 

Opinion: It’s not much of a leap to envision WSU in 2017 looking to find ways to get its running backs more touches.

THE MOST LOGICAL conclusion from this chair is that the WSU running backs are most likely to put up increased numbers in the receiving game.  And given that all three of the primary Cougar running backs averaged a robust 5.4 ypc or more last season on the ground, I don’t believe the aim would be to take carries away in order to increase receptions.

First, consider that Jamal Morrow (pictured above) and Gerard Wicks will be fifth-year seniors and coming off their most productive seasons.  James Williams will be a second-year sophomore, and the greatest improvement is generally seen between the first and second years. Keith Harrington is back healthy, and back with the running backs, and he caught 43 passes as a second-year freshman in 2015 . 

I don’t think running backs coach Jim Mastro wants to rotate four backs, he indicated last year and the year before that three in rotation seems to about be the maximum. But in looking at the whole, there are a lot of potential receptions in that pool.

Second, WSU has to replace two of the best wide receivers in the history of the program in Gabe Marks and River Cracraft.  While the 2017 crop of receivers will no doubt put up crooked numbers again out on the Palouse, a solid argument can also be made for more running back targets in the receiving game. After all, WSU will be replacing the only duo in conference history to each total 200-plus career receptions.

The running back reception numbers last year weren’t insignificant -- Morrow and Williams both had 48 receptions, tied for fourth on the team, while Wicks had 29 grabs. 

But on paper it makes a lot of sense that more catches, and yards from scrimmage, could be in store for the Cougar running backs in 2017. 

RELATED: A blunt Mastro answer on the Williams PT question

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