Cougars have interchangeable running backs

PULLMAN — One of the biggest misconceptions about head coach Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense is that the running backs aren’t as involved because of how many passes are thrown.

Leach, of course, will highlight this myth whenever the opportunity presents itself, noting that his backs at Texas Tech were usually among the Big 12’s leaders in total offense.

An example of that kind of versatility: In his final season as the Red Raiders’ coach, Leach’s primary running back was Baron Batch, who ran for 884 yards and also caught 57 passes for 395 yards.

In 2006, a running back named Shannon Woods led Texas Tech with 926 yards on 152 carries, and also caught 75 passes for 572 yards.

And while those kinds of numbers might be more of a gold standard than an expectation in Leach’s first season with the Cougars, Washington State’s group of running backs appears stocked with the kind of shiftiness and pass-catching ability necessary to thrive in Leach’s offense.

“They can all kind of do the same thing, so we’re not one-dimensional,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “You can’t say, ‘every time so-and-so’s in the game, it’s this.’ They’re all kind of the same guy. All tough, all play hard, all will block, all catch the ball fairly well. That’s a good problem to have right now.”

Settling on a starter may be more difficult, for all the reasons Mastro mentioned.

Leach often jokes that it’s hard to tell his running backs apart if he’s looking at them from behind. But he’s probably not really kidding. Look at the listed heights of senior Carl Winston (5-foot-8), freshman Teondray Caldwell (5-8), sophomore Marcus Mason (5-8), redshirt junior Leon Brooks (5-7) and junior college transfer Theron West (5-7), and you see a pretty clear pattern emerging.

And that’s not even mentioning last season’s leading rusher, redshirt sophomore Rickey Galvin, a 5-8 speedster who has been working out at slot receiver recently.

Mastro said he still expects Galvin to line up in the backfield at least part of the time. Leach wants Galvin on the field as much as possible to maximize WSU’s offensive talent.

Part of why he was able to do that, he said, was because of how the rest of WSU’s backs have progressed.

“They’re pretty interchangeable. They’ve really developed their cuts well,” Leach said. “They do their cuts really sharply and they have good ball skills. One thing that’s impressed me is how well they’ve blocked up to this point, and I think at some point it’s going to be hard to pare that down to two. But I do think they’ve played well and it did give us some flexibility with Rickey.”

Caldwell, a true freshman from Los Angeles, has been slowed by injury a bit during camp, but he’s shown bursts of speed and vision when given the opportunity during team sessions. Winston, who carried the ball 142 times last year for 442 yards, also sees plenty of time with the first unit.

Galvin, Winston and Caldwell were listed as WSU’s top three backs on its post-spring depth chart. Which Leach said he’s never even seen.

Neither has Brooks, who impressed with his ball skills in the spring.

“I don’t really know the depth chart, honestly,” he said. “I just know when coach calls my number, I come running in.”

“Teondray, Brooks, Winston and Mason have all had real solid camps,” Mastro said. “Those guys have all kind of been steady Eddie. Teondray showed the ability, which is what we thought. He’s explosive as heck.

“But again, they have a long way to go as far as the mental part of the game, understanding how to work through fatigue and all of those things. It’s kind of a comfort level, and they still haven’t figured out that their body can kind of do a little bit more than they think they can do.”

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