Has Rankin found his niche?

If you wouldn't know any better, you'd think Louis Rankin would have a clear path toward paydirt. A hole the size of the Grand Canyon to waltz through, unimpeded by a silly little thing called competition. After all, the only other running back around this spring to share carries with hasn't played a live down of football since Jake Locker's junior year in high school.

But in talking to the senior from Stockton, Calif., all of it doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't include winning. It's no coincidence that arguably Louis' best game to date as a Husky came in the one the won - the last one. During Washington's 35-32 win over Washington State, Rankin sealed the Cougars' fate as he danced around the right end and then exploded toward the west end zone of Martin Stadium, and in the process showed the kind of speed that UW fans knew he had but had rarely seen since seeing film of him shred defenses during his days at Lincoln High School.

"He's got good vision and he's got good speed," Washington Running Backs Coach Trent Miles said of Rankin on Thursday. "He can take it to the house at any time."

It's part of what makes Rankin a threat. But that threat has been on the shelf a lot more often than it's been in play, and that's something UW Head Coach Tyrone Willingham would like to see more of. "I'll take what I can get from him, and I hope it's a lot," Willingham said of Rankin. "I won't try to set a role for Louis, we'll let him work toward the role he's most comfortable with. At the same time, his style is a little different than some other backs, so you accept that. Where he's good, you let him be good, and where he isn't you try not to put him in those situations.

"I don't necessarily need Louis to be more vocal. On most days - I'd say nine out of 10 days - he's out there working as hard as anyone on our football team. You can really see his effort in everything he does, he's out front. That's what you need from him. It would be a bonus to get something from him vocally, but that will come. But as long as he continues to give us that work, that ethic, he'll be fine."

Rankin feels he's up to the challenge. "Opportunities only come once in a while, so it's up to me to take advantage of it," he said, matter-of-factly. "The biggest thing is to take it one play at a time. We're both going to get a lot of reps, so we just have to take it one play at a time and get better."

Junior J.R. Hasty will be splitting time with Rankin this spring, and one of the more compelling storylines of April will be just how far the former Bellevue star comes along in his progress. Hasty was expected to play last year until academics sidelined him for the entire season. Now the two will split carries, at least until a fresh crop of eager, green prospects arrives in August.

"It really hasn't changed our practice at all, other than how you monitor what you do with your individual period and you get more specific with your development," Miles said of the noticeable lack of running depth right now. "You slow it down just a little bit, but you're still just as demanding as you would be if you had seven or eight guys out there.

"I'm going to expose them. What you have to do is adjust how you do your individual period and how you adjust guys just to keep everyone fresh. But we're using the fullbacks, Kravitz and Homer too, as tailbacks. So we have four tailbacks. They haven't gotten a ton of carries yet, but they will."

But how do you straddle that fine line where you know they all need the work, yet you don't want to throw your backs to the lions so many times that they are bruised and battered heading into the fall? It's something both Miles and Willingham are keenly aware of. "The philosophy is to get better, to learn the system and to really hone our fundamentals and techniques," said Miles. "But at the same time, since there's only four out there, it's my job to protect them and not to wear them out."

"You have to be smart about it," Willingham added. "I don't put any more time or worry about our lack of numbers. There's always a position you're going to be short at. There are very few teams that have a full compliment (of players) across the board."

So while the coaches are worrying about the bigger picture, Rankin is focused on what he can control. "I just have get better all around with the little things, technical things like footwork and stuff like that," he said. "I'm just trying to get better. If I'm number-one or number-two, I just want to go out there and do my best. And I expect J.R. to do the same too."

"We make the system fit the players, and both have strengths that we will find a way to use," added Miles. "That's what we'll use the rest of this spring trying to find."

But there's little question who holds the cards. It's up to Rankin to show that he can be that dependable back the Huskies have desperately needed for years. He may not have a running style that will allow him to be a prototypical workhorse, but he has the chance to be something almost as good - the first UW running back to rush for over a thousand yards since Corey Dillon did it over 10 years ago. That is one sorry statistic, especially for a team that normally prides itself on being able to push the ball through the trenches.

But Louis, being the team player that he is - would trade any press guide mention for wins. The more wins the better. And sure, Louis currently has 1186 career yards to date at UW, but any hopes that he might push that elusive yearly yardage barrier might just have to take a backseat to the fact that the Huskies are going to need as many quality backs toting the rock this fall as they can get.

"I don't know any school that just travels two tailbacks. It doesn't work that way," said Miles. "Someone is going to have an opportunity to perform and it's our job to get them ready to do that. And it's important for all of them to step up, to be ready to go at any time. It's not just Louis, it's all of them that have to step up their game."

With Rankin, there's no question about it. And he knows it. "I think this is a team that goes out to do their best, and if we go out every time with that mentality we're destined for success," he said.
More on Hasty: Miles intimated that things are going well for Hasty right now, and since the academic suspension things have been on track. "That's in the past," Miles said of Hasty's troubles. "I'm happy with the effort that he's given and he's practiced well. The whole group has gone out and had few mental mistakes, but they all have things they need to work on to get better."

What about Hasty's strengths? "He has a knack for finding a crease in a zone play, making a cut and taking it vertical," Miles said.
More Notes:
Alumni BBQ this weekend: The annual alumni BBQ that the Big W Club puts together for former UW football players will be this weekend. Typically the former players take in a practice and then join the current team and staff for a BBQ afterwards. According to Willingham they had around 140 former players attend last year and he thinks there will be more this year. Aretha (Hill) Thurmond, who took over for Greg Lewis, is organizing the event, and it sounds like she has made it a very big priority for the Big W Club to update their alumni database and really reach out to former players that haven't been coming back to events like this one. We'll see how well-attended it is. "It's a great day where we can see our young men interact with the former players and just get a positive feel for what is taking place," Willingham said of the event.

Pads can wait: Willingham said that Saturday will be the first day the team will put on full pads. "It's a pretty easy progression," he said of the beginning of spring and when he likes for his teams to finally put full pads on. "You aren't really acclimated back to playing football, even though you've done so much training for it, but there's nothing like playing it."

The more things change: The NCAA finally moved back to the change of possession timing rules they had two years ago, meaning teams don't have to hustle back in the game on changes of possession. Most coaches hated this rule from the outset, hence the change back to the original rule. "It serves college football well," Willingham said of the change back. "The more plays there are, the more opportunities there are for mistakes being made, and that makes the game exciting. And while we don't want to be on the end of those mistakes, it does make the game more exciting."

QB youth hanging in: Willingham was asked about the two newcomers at quarterback - Ronnie Fouch and Chandler Clemons. "They have been placed in a difficult situation, moreso than any other position, and they've held their own - which has been nice to see," he said. "And because of the lack of depth at the position, it helps the team and it gives them an advantage because they are only two plays away from playing. Having an opportunity to play right now, at this time of the year, is very important to them."

Quick updates: No position switches and no major injuries, although Quintin Daniels (hip flexor), Erik Berglund (hamstring), Ian McMilan and Mark Farney (back) have been more limited in their activity. Also, the Gold Jerseys that were given out last fall camp for stellar play are still in effect, but none have been given out yet.

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