'John Does' in a rush to get ready

SEATTLE - J.R. Hasty calls Willie Griffin 'Arsenio Hall'. You know, for that famous fist pump the former talk show host used to do. Apparently he calls Curtis Shaw 'Curteous Curtis', for no good reason, it seems. And Brandon Yakaboski and Brandon Johnson? They are 'Yak' and 'B' respectively. Sometimes Hasty calls Johnson 'Compton', as a shout out to Brandon's hometown.

While the nicknames take hold, the group hasn't come up with a moniker of their own. Along with Louis Rankin, the 'Five Muskateers' doesn't fit at all. 'Five for Fighting'? Nah, this is football, not hockey. Five-iron Frenzy? Decent name for a band, but not for a group of running backs.

"We are working to earn our name right now," Griffin said with a laugh. "Right now we're the 'John Does'."

Willie just might have a point. After all, the Washington Huskies return only one running back with playing time (Rankin), and only one back that's proven he belongs in the stable of tailbacks the Huskies will take with them to Syracuse. That's also Rankin.

The rest of the group is a very big question mark, but one they are hoping to solve with a giant exclamation point this fall, removing all doubts as to the Huskies' ability to move the ball on the ground.

Trent Miles - Washington's Running Backs Coach - has no time for those supposed 'walls' the frosh hit during fall camp. They need to break down all barriers if they hope to be ready to face an orange crush on the other coast. "You can't go into a big-time Division-1 schedule, you can't be a big-time Division-1 team, with only two guys," Miles told Dawgman.com Wednesday. "You have to have at least four."

And no matter how you slice it, at least two of those four are going to be true freshmen. That's the awful truth, as well as the exciting part of it. There's so much intrigue, so much in the way of possibility. But it's a frightening proposition for Miles.

"There's a lot of stuff to absorb and a lot of stuff to do," he said, massively understating the mark. "Right now they are just thinking too much, but they are getting a lot better. But it's still early."

But the clock is ticking. And in the fourth quarter of preparations for Syracuse, the Huskies are getting close to that two-minute warning. So it begs the question...

Who is going to step up and take charge?

"It's all a matter of who picks up what the fastest," Miles said, simply enough.

That means the playbook, the assignments, the pass protections - in short, all the things star tailbacks at the high school level never had to do. Even for team veterans like Hasty, picking up the correct pass protections is a very difficult part of the job - one he's still trying hard to perfect.

"I don't have much room for error," Hasty said. "I make sure I keep up, learning the plays and making sure the freshmen out with their plays. I have to show that I can keep up the pace."

"It's not about survival, it's about learning what you need to and being able to do it without the coaches helping you," added Shaw.

"It's an endurance test,"Yakaboski said of the dog days of fall camp. "You try not to get hurt. Some days are really long. Sometimes you don't get all the reps that you'd like. You've got to push through it."

The freshmen knew they would have their work cut out for them - but that was part of the bargain when they signed on to become Huskies back in February. They knew opportunities were available, and they could get a chance to play right away - provided they did all the little things it takes to earn that role.

"I knew that anywhere you go, there's going to be competition there no matter what," Shaw said, when asked about competing against three other players for the spot backing up his former future alumnus at Lincoln High School in Stockton. "You need to go to the program fits you best, and I felt Washington fit what I do best."

"I was excited about it because of all the different styles (of the backs)," Johnson added. "We can be great. We have the flashier backs and we have the power backs. We have backs that can catch. All of us being able to help the team out in different ways - it's just great.

"I want to play against the best. That's how you show your true talent."

Griffin took a more pragmatic approach. "I liked their academics," he said of Washington. "It's a very good school. And I'm going to be here for the next four or five years, so I had to look at how comfortable I was going to be in the off-season. And the Bay Area has some rain like in Seattle, and today is beautiful - more of a Bay Area environment."

Yakaboski took advantage of all the information available to him. Even though he was first of this group of running backs to commit (Nate Williams was about a month-and-a-half earlier, but has since decided to try safety), he saw the others commit and knew that he still had something the Huskies were looking for.

"I knew what kind of running back I was, and I knew I was the only one that ran like that out of that group," he said. "So it didn't matter to me how many running backs they brought in - I was coming to Washington."

So what kind of running back is Yakaboski? Let him fill in the details.

"I look at myself as more of a power back," he added, noting that former Chicago Bear Walter 'Sweetness' Payton was his idol growing up. "I'd rather run through somebody than around them. I can juke and I have decent speed, but my mindset is to try and run through somebody."

Griffin, at 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, is a self-described 'downhill' runner. "My style is more powerful," he said. "I can go to the outside and gain yards, but as far as the competition - I believe every back brings something to the table, and the more looks you can show a defense, the better off your offense will be."

One thing is unmistakable; since the recruitment of Rankin, the Huskies have looked to one constant in their tailback prospects; speed. And with Rankin, Shaw and Johnson, this group might have as much pure foot speed as the vaunted 1992 tailback trio of Beno Bryant, Napoleon Kaufman and Jay Barry.

"Coach Lappano is trying to go in a different direction," Shaw said. "As the old saying goes, 'Speed Kills', and he's trying to get as much speed as he can. Going into the game having so many players with the same speed, it'll just be that much more dangerous."

Brandon Johnson leaves no doubt as to what he's thinking. "It (variety and speed in the running back corps) is going to help us eventually win a national championship because we have so many different weapons," he said, matter-of-factly. "Now it's hard for defenses to stop, to key on just one person."

But there's still that sticky problem of experience. The players' hubris is understandable, and can easily be written off as the thoughts of an excited group of kids ready to strap on their helmets and get after it. But the reality is that the Huskies have a Mao-like march ahead of them to get back into the thoughts and opinions of pollsters, let alone into a serious discussion about a national championship.

In talking to these players, one thing is also very clear; their desire to win - regardless of their own interests. And it's an easy riddle to solve, because their own interests ARE the interests of the team, a thought as refreshing as a dip in Lake Washington after a long, hot practice.

"Whoever gets out there, you got to keep 'em out there. You have to go out there and ball. And when I get out there, I have to take advantage of it. I'd be coming into the game as a rookie, but in my head I can't be a rookie out there. I've been here long enough, I have to act like I've been there."

"I just want to win, so I'm going to do whatever I can," Johnson added. "If it's first and 10, I'm going to try and get 20. If it's first and 5, I'm going to try and get 10. I'm trying to go that extra mile to win."

Yakaboski has been getting some plaudits of late from Willingham - an encouraging sign for a player that wasn't as highly-regarded as his California teammates. "I know I can play at this level," he said. "It's motivation for me."

As if the thought of being a play away from being the No. 1 tailback for the Washington Huskies on an ESPN Friday night telecast wasn't motivation enough.

"Wherever you go, you have to make a difference," Griffin said.

By then, the 'John Does' will be anything but.


Dawgman.com Top Stories