Rich Alexis: Hoping the third season's a charm

In 2000, a wide-eyed, well-built Rich Alexis entered his freshman year at the University of Washington with no immediate expectations from the local fans or media. All he did was go on to start four games and rush for a freshman school-record 726 yards and nine touchdowns. Heading into the 2001 season, fans were already declaring the sophomore as the next great Husky tailback.

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UW Head Coach Rick Neuheisel thought so much of his talent, in fact, that he decided to move one-time blue-chip tailback Paul Arnold to receiver to lessen the strain on his chronically injured back. Unlike the previous season, Alexis entered his sophomore year with a load of expectations that would have rivaled that of any Husky youngster before him.

But success didn't come easy. Alexis came into fall camp 10 pounds heavier than a season before, bulking up in the weight room to a size that hurt his ability to cut and dash through the line with the same precision of a year earlier. The explosiveness, though still there, didn't have the same punch to it. Senior tailback Willie Hurst shared the load, and ultimately became the go-to guy by season's end as Alexis faded into a reserve role. Alexis finished the season with 125 carries, seven more than a year earlier, but ran for only 391 yards. His 6.2 yards per carry as a freshman declined remarkably to half that average at 3.1.

Already heading into his junior season, Alexis wants desperately to erase the personal struggles of 2001. The start of spring practices have been a time for him to refocus and again prove to whoever is watching that he should be the main option in the backfield.

"I've been waiting for this for a long time because coming off a bad season like that you just want to get that bad taste out of your mouth and start off fresh," said Alexis. "The way to do it is to start in the spring.

"Last year I had a disappointing season, and for me to come back out here and start out fresh is exciting."

These days, the smile is back on Alexis' face. The optimism has returned. And at 220 pounds, his body is in the best shape since he arrived in Seattle a year-and-a-half ago. Those are all reasons to believe 2002 could mark the return of Alexis.

"Basically I'm in better shape than I was coming into last season," he explained. "Last spring I couldn't do the off-season workout and this spring I did do the offseason workout. I went through the 10-week process and everything feels real good right now."

"I worked real hard with the coaches and with the team. With the mat drills alone that really kicks your butt right there. I'm a little quicker now."

Now that Hurst has graduated and Arnold figures to be one of the teams most dangerous weapons –at receiver – Neuheisel and the Husky coaches not only hope, but need Alexis to return to his freshman form in 2002.

How much is Alexis going to miss Hurst?

"I'm going to miss the Matrix man," he said, referring to Hurst by his nickname. "He used to get me going and get me hyped on days when I didn't want to go. I learned a lot from him and hopefully I can carry it over into this year."

Alexis will join senior Braxton Cleman, sophomore Chris Singleton, and promising newcomers Kenny James and Shelton Sampson in the backfield next season. With the team thinner at tailback now than at any time in recent memory, this, more than ever, will be the time for Alexis to show what he's made of.

And he should have plenty of opportunity to do so. Only one member of last years' offensive line is gone, center Kyle Benn. Everyone else returns. Sophomore Khalif Barnes, juniors Nick Newton and Todd Bachert, and senior Elliot Zajac are a season older and wiser. Players like center Dan Dicks, now in his third year at UW, guards Aaron Butler and Willie Kava, tackle Robin Meadow, and junior college transfer Francisco Tipoti create depth that this team hasn't had in years. With a unit this strong and experienced in front of him, Alexis will have no excuses in 2002.

"They look bigger, faster, and a lot stronger," said Alexis of his offensive line, grinning from ear to ear.

Another factor that may work in his favor is the change at runningbacks coach, where former cornerbacks coach Chuck Heater has moved over to coach at the position he played in college. Heater, a former fullback at Michigan, is someone Alexis has a special connection with dating back to his high school days.

"With Coach Heater I knew him from the jump of my freshman year," Alexis explained. "He was the first coach to see my tape and he's the one that told Coach Neuheisel that I could play."

Alexis says that special relationship will help him adapt to any new methods Heater will have of coaching the position. "I think that move was the perfect thing for us," said Alexis of moving Heater to runningbacks coach.

Getting an early jab in, the junior tailback laughed, "As soon as he gets his plays down he's going to be just like (former runningbacks coach Tony Alford) screaming and yelling.

A year of no expectations yielded incredible results. A year filled with high expectations made for a disastrous season. This year, Rich Alexis would like to have the best of both worlds – a season filled with high expectations and long dashes to the endzone. Top Stories