Backs move to the forefront

With an inexperienced group of wideouts, the Huskies are looking to both QB Jake Locker and a stable of running backs to take the heat off the passing game. The one returning tailback with the most experience is Brandon Johnson and the young man who hails from Compton says he considers the job his to lose at this point.

"In my head I'm the number one guy," Johnson said without a hint of arrogance in his voice. "I look at it as the spot is mine. I don't mind sharing time, but as of now, I want all the carries."

Johnson was the one freshman running back to not redshirt in 2007 and he had a big day against California at Husky Stadium in November when he rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown while spelling an injured Louis Rankin.

That experience has thrust him to the forefront of most observers' minds, however while Johnson has the mindset the job is his, his position coach and offensive coordinator wouldn't go that far, at least not at this point.

"We're always going through constant evaluation, but Brandon's name jumps to the top because of what he was able to do last year," running backs coach Steve Gervais said recently. "I think the big question is, certainly with Louis Rankin gone, he's going to step in there and I think Brandon showed some great things last year that showed his talents,"

Johnson mentioned what Rankin helped him learn in his short time as Johnson's mentor and what Gervais has been able to imbue him with while working to earn that starting spot.

"The most important thing was being patient," Johnson said. "In my first game I was just shooting through the holes and he was being more patient, so he had the longer runs so he showed me how to be patient and in my practices I've had a lot more long runs and stuff like that has helped me out with my confidence as well.

"Coach Gervais is a lot more laid back. He's a lot more relaxing at practice because he just explains to us on what we're supposed to do and he'll walk us through it so it makes it that much easier so I really like coach Gervais a lot and he's taught me more than I ever knew about the game.

"He's taught us how to read defenses and how to read the fronts – the overs, the unders and the different techniques that they're in and stuff like that and where to look when I'm running and where the cutbacks might be."

"I think they're all young, so we want to make sure they understand those fronts and those linebacker packages and what they're going to be doing," Gervais said. "They need to know how they're going to be attacking from a blitz situation so I think there's a lot to be learned whether it's Brandon or the other two."

The other two are Brandon Yakaboski and Willie Griffin, two players with differing styles that add dimensions to Washington's offensive attack.

"Willie's a real good inside runner," offensive coordinator Tim Lappano noted. "He's not a real speed guy, but I think he's got great feet in the hole and he's got a good feel for running the football and he runs behind his pads and he's got good vision.

"Brandon Yakaboski is a good inside runner because he's big and powerful and strong, but he's also got the knack to make you miss. He really has nice loose hips and he can break you down and make you miss. He can be great out on the perimeter and I think he's got as good of hands as anybody on the football team."

"We've got a good competition with me, Brandon and Willie and the new freshman that are coming in will bring something special, but it's all fun and we're having fun," Johnson added. "I think they'll rotate us because we all have different styles of running, so they might use us in different situations, but we all bring something different and that will make defenses concerned with different things and that will only help us."

Not to be overlooked, fullbacks Paul Homer and Luke Kravitz have also made their impression on their new position coach.

"(Homer) is such a smart kid," Gervais noted. "He's got great football sense out on the field so that practical application, just to go with the understanding is big. Being a leader comes naturally to him and being able to assimilate it all is just part of his makeup.

"I think they all look up to him and know that he's a leader on this football team. Whether it's blocking or running or whatever capacity he's being used they look up to him.

"Luke runs hard and he's smart too. He's a great short-yardage guy for us. We really like what he's been doing as well."

Gervais actually has had a hectic transition from the high school level to D-1 football. He was hired in early March to replace Trent Miles who left to become the head coach at his alma mater, Indiana State.

"It's been awesome," Gervais said of his first three weeks of spring practice. "You're teaching the same values, but it's with a smaller group of kids and it's fun just to be coaching one position because you can focus on it, where as a head coach it's a much broader sense where you're worried about things that aren't necessarily football related and now I get to work with a smaller group and it's more football related."

With Gervais' background in the spread offense, that adds another mind to the mix as far as maximizing the talents of the players at the skill positions that the Huskies have signed the past couple years, but he knows where his focus must remain.

"As an offensive staff you're always sitting around talking about things and Tim is always open to suggestions so you're always looking at the bigger scope of things, but my job is to get the backs ready," Gervais admitted. "Whether it's ball security or pass blocking, my number one priority is keeping that quarterback healthy and make sure he's not getting blindsided and that he has time to throw the ball."

With a defense that struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone in 2007, the offense will be counted on to score points and milk the clock and there are no better players to rely on than the stable of runners Washington will send out on the field in 2008. Top Stories