PULLMAN — It’s rare that a team considers the loss of the previous year’s top two running backs to be a good thing, but in Washington State’s case the predicament is voluntary.
Three new rushers have pushed themselves to the forefront of WSU’s offensive backfield, relegating Marcus Mason, last season’s leader in offensive yards, to the scout team and causing the coaches to move Teondray Caldwell, who started five games at running back last season, to safety in an effort to get him on the field in some capacity.
Minor injuries may have played a role in Mason’s demotion — WSU’s coaches do not generally acknowledge injuries — but the emergence of a pair of freshmen who redshirted last season has been more important.
Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks played exclusively in Thursday Night Football underclassmen scrimmages last season, and looked good enough to contribute on Saturdays. When the team takes the field against Rutgers on Thursday, Morrow will be the starting running back and Wicks will be his backup.
Among those three backs the competition remains fierce. Theron West broke out last season in the bowl game and entered fall camp No. 1 on the depth chart. Now he’s No. 3. Wicks was WSU’s most explosive player in fall camp and will likely be the team’s go-to back when it nears the opponent’s goal line.
“The other two guys are awesome, great. Every single one of us back there are superbly talented, so it’s pretty awesome,” West said. “They push me a lot, I push them a lot, and we basically take care of each other. If there’s anything that one of us may be lacking we pick each other up. We’re still brothers in the end.”
The fact that the coaches were able to move Caldwell emphasizes their confidence in the depth WSU has built at the position.
“It’s great to have depth,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “Depth is everything. Everywhere I’ve been before this stop we’ve been stacked at that position and that was our goal. You have to stack that position up because it’s a physical position and we finally did that. We have a lot of depth.”
Ultimately, the two freshmen running backs are more aligned with Mastro’s vision of what the position should be. Just because the Cougars like to spread out their offense and rely heavily on the pass does not mean they’re foregoing classic, stocky rushers built for work between the tackles. In fact, it’s the ideal.
Mastro wants all his running backs to fall between 190 and 200 pounds. If that’s not possible, they’ll move the player to slot receiver, as happened with Rickey Galvin — the starting “H” receiver — soon after Mike Leach and his coaching staff arrived at WSU.
If a player can’t make that switch, the Cougars don’t want him.
“That’s why in recruiting we wait so long to take a running back unless we find the absolute right one,” Mastro said. “Because we want to meet him, we want to talk to him, we want to watch him practice and we want to watch him play. They have got to have the physical nature to them or really they can’t play at any level, especially here.”
Even though West might be the best of the three at catching passes out of the backfield, at 175 pounds he doesn’t have the size of the two redshirt freshmen, who are each around 190.
But the vast majority of WSU’s running plays will be called at the line of scrimmage anyway, based on what the defense presents, so any of the three could lead the team in rushing on a given night, and in doing, make their case for the pole position on the depth chart.
“When I see Jamal or T. West make a big play I know it’s time to make a big play,” Wicks said.
Morrow and West say they’re happy to reciprocate.