Coach's Corner

With spring ball just around the corner, the biggest question amongst the Husky faithful is, "What about the running game?" With Rich Alexis on the shelf with another injury, the table is set for Kenny James to make his move. Sure, Chris Singleton returns with more experience and Shelton Sampson brings the most speed to the position since Napoleon Kaufman. But the guy who will emerge when it is all over, I predict, will be the guy who just happens to wear Nip's number - 8.

James just has the best vision, the most instinct, tremendous balance, and the hands. And he'll not only win the job during spring, but he will hold on to it when Alexis returns in the fall.

I'm not always right (just ask my wife), but in this case it looks pretty clear that the Huskies need a change at tailback if they expect to improve their running game.

James is a lot like Willie Hurst in that he is a "make you miss" runner. He is a juke artist who is a natural running back and has the ability to go against the grain. He can freeze a linebacker and is a bowling ball-type runner who will shed tacklers because of his big thighs (James stands 5-11 and weighs 210 pounds).

Ok, go ahead and ask me. If he is that good, why didn't he play last year?

Simply because he wasn't ready yet. A year in the weight room and watching others flounder at the position has only made him hungrier. He is not a blazer but has got his 40 down into the 4.6's, and if he hangs onto the ball and continues to show he can take the hits then he is the one true running back in the program.

At least until the incoming freshmen arrive.

As a senior in high school James posted unbelievable numbers, running for close to 3,000 yards and scoring a whopping 49 TD's. Wow! That, Husky fans, is having a nose for the endzone. When you find that he had 118 TD's in his high school career, that tells you he is really familiar with the most important part of the field for any back.

He was a first team All-State pick in California, and did it twice. As a junior Kenny rushed for 2,400 yards and scored 54 touchdowns. I don't believe any back has ever come into the Husky program with better statistics, and it probably explains why many fans were clamoring for him to play last season, especially with such an anemic running game. I know my fellow Husky Honks wanted to see him the whole year and just couldn't understand why the coaches didn't lift his red shirt and play him at least toward the end.

After the mid-season road losing streak, the coaching staff figured they might as well save him. I think everyone will be happy they did that in about four years. He is a special running back but certainly they maintained their loyalty to a senior, Braxton Cleman.

I'm sure Kenny realizes that this is a big opportunity. With renewed emphasis on running the ball and the addition of offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto, the Huskies will be dramatically improved in rushing categories. This, despite what people think of the current pass-happy league the Huskies play in.

Anybody who studies the game realizes that championship teams do three things well:

  • Play great defense
  • Become solid in the kicking game
  • Be able to run the ball when you want to.

  • I really think that Kenny James will give the missing ingredient to the third part. That's not to say Chris and Shelton will not be competitive, it's just that Kenny has that special quality that Willie, Beno, and Napoleon had.

    He simply knows how to run and will be given a golden opportunity to prove it.

    Personally, I think the greatest player ever to play running back at Washington was Corey Dillon. In his one year here he set every record there was and didn't get into the starting lineup until after the third game. This was again due to the coaches' loyalty to Rashaan Shehee, the incumbent senior.

    Corey was not a whole lot faster than Kenny James and neither was Greg Lewis. Yet both could make you miss and both had power to complement their speed. James also has the power and is more than big enough to take the pounding that an every-down back will take.

    If he can show solid hands and hang onto the ball in traffic, I predict he will come out of spring as the starter.

    What I would like to see is another everyday, every-down, every-series running back. A Joe Steele, Greg Lewis or Corey Dillon would be nice. It has always been my opinion that a great running back gets better the longer the game wears on. Teams that win know how to run the ball in the second half, particularly if you get a lead then start pounding and grinding as the game goes on until the defense gives in.

    This will only make Cody a better quarterback because teams won't be pinning their ears back on the pass rush and going after him so much. The Huskies will pass when they want to, rather than when they have to, which was every down last year.

    The line will appreciate someone like Kenny who can anticipate a hole opening before it actually does. James, as an honor student in high school, likewise thinks the game out and sees it happening before him.

    He has only been forgotten for a short while but should burst onto the scene this April with some breakaway runs and firmly plant himself in the drivers seat as the next great Husky tailback.

    Of course, his offensive line will be much improved and that alone will make this even more likely to happen. Obviously, durability will play a major role and staying in one piece will be critical to his earning the job.

    However, if all works like I think it will, you will see number 8 return to the starting tailback position and the Huskies return to the top of the conference in rushing. Remember, Gilby is still the "round mound of ground." He simply didn't have the confidence to use the run last year. And when he did, people complained that he shouldn't bother, since we pass so well.

    It was a double-edged sword.

    Do you keep doing what you do well, or do you run just for the sake of running? Unfortunately, when the Huskies played Purdue in the bowl game they were so one-dimensional that the Boilermakers simply attacked the quarterback and won the game going away.

    Kenny James might be the answer, but what the O-line does this spring might be the real question.
    Dawgman.com columnist and KJR 950 Sports Radio personality, Dick Baird.
    Dick Baird was an Assistant Coach (Linebackers) and Recruiting Coordinator at the UW from 1985-1998. He has joined the Dawgman.com staff as a featured columnist for both the web site and Sports Washington magazine. In addition to his regular editorial columns, Coach Baird will try to provide some of his unique perspective by answering a few of your selected questions online. If you would like to send in your questions, please CLICK HERE.

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