Backfield Competition Should Be Intense

With no Chris Polk on the scene, this spring promises to be highly competitive at the all-important running back position. Polk's absence, due to a shoulder rehab, will open up the tailback position with Johri Fogerson and Demitrius Bronson probably starting out at the top, but it will be real interesting if they can hold off the two youngsters, Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier.

Brandon Yakaboski is also scheduled to return to action after sitting out nearly two years with injuries. He is a bit of an unknown and his durability is certain to be a major question mark but he showed some flashes as a freshman, and that alone would seem to make him a factor. According the Steve Sarkisian on Monday, the junior would be available for spring, but most likely in a very limited capacity.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention sophomore walk-on Cole Sager, who even though he was only a true freshman found his way on to the field in games. Listed as a running back, he lettered on special teams and served the team well as a scout team back. Sager proved he was both smart and tough and will give depth to a position that suddenly is in need.

With Polk sitting out and fullback Paul Homer having used up his eligibility, the whole backfield will be different this spring. Returning fullbacks Austin Sylvester and Kimo Makaula will be battling with Tobias Togi to earn that spot. In the fall Zach Fogerson, Johri's younger brother, will join that mix, but don't be surprised to see tight ends - like Dorson Boyce, who Sarkisian mentioned specifically on Monday - used in the movement position of insert blocker or receiver out of the backfield.

Cooper and Callier both should still be in high school, but both are enrolled and will be competing when pads start popping next week. The Huskies won't go full pads until a week from Tuesday.

Cooper, who enrolled back in the beginning of winter quarter, is already attending classes and is not 5-11 and 175 as he was listed in recruiting, but rather a fit and fast 195 pounds and still growing. His name keeps coming up after winter drills and if you watched his highlight tape you understand why. This kid is explosive and has that second gear that separated him from would-be tacklers.

Cooper finished his high school career with an unbelievable 7,450 rushing yards and 107 touchdowns, and led his team to a 38-1 record over his final three seasons. He had lots of games of over 300 and even 400 yards rushing and played both ways. He has turned heads with his quickness and effort during winter drills.

Callier, who started classes on Monday, will have his hands full. With the beginning of college and his first official UW practice this week, it's certainly understandable. But all Callier did in high school was lead the state of California in rushing last year at Warren High School, going for 3,010 yards and 43 touchdowns. His rushing total of 6,529 yards over his high school years was almost 1000 shy of Cooper, but he played at a bigger school in a higher division.

Who would have thought it so important that the Huskies get Cooper and Callier to enroll early, but they are going to be counted on right away to fill the void left by the departures of Willie Griffin, Curtis Shaw, Terrance Dailey, David Freeman, and Brandon Johnson, who were all on the roster at this time last year. Griffin and Shaw left the program this winter, while Dailey, Freeman, and Johnson all left before the last season had even begun. That is a significant amount of attrition at such an important skill position, but most of those kids were not going to play much anyway except in case of injury, and that is exactly what had happened.

Polk showed last season that he is a special back and that was mostly based on his toughness. He is easily the most physical kid the Huskies have had carrying the ball since the great Corey Dillon. He is a contact runner and his yards after contact probably led the conference. He runs over, around, or through tacklers, and there is no question that the continued pounding over the course of the season contributed to his shoulder injury. He should return for fall camp and be even better than last year, providing his shoulder mends properly.

His toughness and durability gives him a chance to be a featured back that wants the ball 20-30 carries per game, and that is why it is so critical to give him the spring off.

For now though, the competition to back him up should be really interesting to follow this spring. You need at least three to four backs to get through a season, so this ends up being a really good thing for the program.

Sarkisian has already shown a willingness to play the best guys no matter what their age or experience, so don't be surprised to see either Cooper or Callier breaking into the rotation.

The overall evaluation and development of this process falls on Running Backs Coach Joel Thomas, who was quite a back himself during his collegiate days at Idaho. Thomas is still the all-time leading rusher in Vandal history and a member of their Hall of Fame.

He was probably one of my biggest local recruiting mistakes as an evaluator when he came out of Port Angeles in the mid 90's. He could easily have been a good player for us, but had a great career in Moscow before going into coaching at places like Purdue, Louisville, and Idaho. Much of the success that Polk had last year was due to the work he put in with Thomas.

I know coach Thomas is really looking forward to working with this group, and in particular the two youngsters, to see what they can bring to the table. He was deeply involved in bringing both to Washington, and for the next four years will be showing them the way to the end zone (If you ever go to practices, Thomas will be the one running all the way to the end zone whenever a back breaks into the open).

Johri Fogerson was having a really decent year last season before an illness set him back. He is such an interesting alternative to Polk, with more of a gliding style of running, as well as being a really good receiver. Sarkisian said Monday that Fogerson may have had the best off-season of any UW player, so he should be primed to return to form.

Bronson, whose main problem was hanging onto the rock, will be out to prove this spring that he is sure-handed and dependable. He has a Willie Hurst-style of running with a low pad level, and he really explodes through the holes. He sort of slides sideways on his cuts, and is good at going low to get that extra yard.

Both Fogerson and Bronson are from the Seattle area and had great careers in high school, but they know that Polk had an awesome season as a red-shirt freshman so they have to do everything they can to step up and push him for playing time.

That is an interesting thing about the running back position; it usually takes a couple of years of development and training before a back is ready to play at the collegiate level as a full-time starter. Similar to the offensive line in that regard, backs tend to get better in their second and third years. That's probably because it takes that long to get their bodies ready to take the beating of being the 'hittee', even though at times Polk appeared to take his own shots as the 'hitter'.

Another reason is that it usually takes that long to teach them how to be a blocker and how to pick up blitzes. This requires the backs to develop an understanding of the protection schemes and where they fit into those schemes. Then they need to understand where the defense is sending blitzers from. This learning process will obviously be the biggest hurdle for the newcomers, and invariably they will struggle early in their careers because they weren't asked to block.

Of the two new kids, you would think Cooper already has an edge because he has been here all winter quarter and has had that extra time of being in college and understanding how everything works in the football program, from the strength and conditioning aspect, to film study. But Callier was also a returner in high school, and that could be his ticket to play this coming fall.

The word competition keeps popping up all the time in the Sarkisian system - in fact he stated it would be the theme of this spring - and you only get that through quality recruiting and evaluation. When you are winning, or the program is perceived to be on the rise, then you get the Napoleon Kaufmans to jump on board. But even with elite prospects like Nip there is a significant learning curve that limits them to a backup or support role their first year.

Both Callier and Cooper are hoping to earn playing time their freshman years, and based on the attrition of the position - along with their own prowess - it may very well happen. They will have to go through Fogerson and Bronson to get there, but that's why spring will be so interesting.


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