SEATTLE — During the final few minutes of the University of Washington’s first football practice earlier this week, freshman running back Demitrius Bronson absolutely refused to quit.
The Kentwood High School product burst through the line in an 11-on-11 drill, got swarmed by several defenders, and kept his legs churning. Since tackling wasn’t allowed, the play was technically over. But Bronson surged ahead, met another pair of defenders, and pushed against them until he found daylight again. Two or three defensive backs converged on him, and, while the other 10 offensive players were already headed back to the huddle, Bronson kept plugging away.
“You have to set your tone,” said Bronson, who kept running hard when the shoulder pads came on for the first time Wednesday. “Being a back, you have to prove something and show that you’re not soft. You really have to take charge and go after them.
“… Everybody’s fighting for positions right now, and I’m doing what I need to do.”
Of all the position battles at the Huskies’ fall training camp, the one involving the running backs appears to be the most open. There is no clear frontrunner, and so every snap counts.
“It’s just compete, compete, compete. That’s all we can do,” said sophomore Willie Griffin, who entered the fall camp atop the depth chart but knows that nothing has been settled. “That’s all we can do. It’s a friendly competition, but we’re out there playing hard. Every day, your job’s in jeopardy. And every one of us want to be the one with that job on Sept. 5 (when the Huskies host LSU in the 2009 opener).”
While all four of the Huskies’ top tailbacks in terms of rushing yards were slated to return this fall, three of them have left the team since the spring. Terrance Dailey, whose 338 yards led the team, was dismissed after spring practices commenced. Junior Brandon Johnson (194 rushing yards) and sophomore David Freeman (152) left the program shortly thereafter.
And sophomore Brandon Yakaboski, who played in two games last season, is out with a knee injury.
That leaves Griffin and a group of unproven runners to battle for the starting spot. Griffin was the team’s second-leading rusher last season, but that’s not saying much on a team that averaged less than 100 rushing yards per game and 2.8 per carry.
The only other tailbacks with game experience are freshman Chris Polk, who played in two games last season before earning a medical redshirt, sophomore Curtis Shaw, who had 12 rushing yards in 2007 but sat out last season for personal reasons, and sophomore Johri Fogerson, whose only game action has come as a safety.
As resumes go, the Husky running backs aren’t even CareerBuilder.com material.
“They’re just like any other position,” new UW coach Steve Sarkisian said, shrugging off the inexperience of his running backs. “Their production is whatever happens out here (on the practice field). I’m not worried about whatever happened before I got here.”
During his tenure as an offensive assistant at USC, Sarkisian got used to the tailback-by-committee system. But that isn’t necessarily how he’ll approach every season.
“I don’t have a steadfast philosophy: gotta-have-one-tailback or tailback-by-committee,” Sarkisian said. “But I do think that, in this day and age of football, you just don’t see teams that have one tailback who carries the ball 25, 30 times a game. It’s hard to do.”
The difference, of course, is that USC was trying to balance playing time for multiple five-star recruits who had signed on with the Trojans. The Huskies are just trying to find someone — anyone — who can run the ball.
UW’s five top tailbacks have a combined 264 rushing yards on 90 carries — good for an average of less than 3.0 yards per carry — and one touchdown.
“It remains to be seen,” Sarkisian said when asked what he’s seen from the position thus far in camp. “We’re just getting in the pads, and we’ll see how the tailbacks react to them.”
One player who continues to impress the coaching staff this camp is wide receiver James Johnson, a true freshman from San Diego who caught three touchdown passes in Wednesday’s practice drills. “We obviously have a long way to go,” Sarkisian said, “but if we were playing (a game) Saturday, he’d be playing; that’s for sure.” … The star of Wednesday’s practice was safety Greg Walker, who intercepted Jake Locker twice and broke up a pass in the end zone when he drilled wide receiver Anthony Boyles and jarred the ball loose. … Tight end Kavario Middleton (personal reasons) and starting defensive tackle Alameda Ta’amu (strained quad) did not practice Wednesday. … Kicker Erik Folk has made all seven of his field-goal attempts over the past two days, including one from 42 yards out.