By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — With the kind of workload University of Washington freshman Jesse Callier has seen at football practices this week, it’s somewhat shocking to think that he had any free time on his hands.
But freshmen being freshmen, and with classes still a few days away from beginning, Callier showed up for Wednesday practice with a new hairdo. Callier and teammate Kevin Smith opted for blond dye jobs that left them with multi-colored hair.
And if Callier was doing it to stick out from his fellow freshmen, well, it’s too late for that.
The tailback from Downey, Calif., has been somewhat of a savior on an injury-plagued position.
“Obviously, Chris (Polk) is our No. 1. He’s our starter and will get the majority of our carries,” running backs coach Joel Thomas said. “But Jesse’s proven himself deserving. He’s helping this offense out.”
Polk hasn’t missed any game action, but he sat out two practices this week due to general soreness. Already sidelined were prized freshman Deontae Cooper, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp, and junior Johri Fogerson, who is nursing a sore hip.
The Huskies have gotten so thin at the position that fullback Zach Fogerson — Johri’s younger brother — has taken some snaps at tailback, sophomore Demetrius Bronson has returned to his natural position after working at fullback in the spring, and safety Taz Stevenson has also seen time at the position in UW practices.
But the key to maintaining any semblance of continuity amid all the injuries has been Callier.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound freshman was adjoined to Cooper because they were the top two high school rushers in California last year and part of the same UW recruiting class. Their battle for playing time started last spring — both Callier and Cooper enrolled in school early — and was neck-and-neck until Cooper suffered the injury.
“It’s why you have to continue to recruit running backs,” Sarkisian said. “It’s not just a one-man race or a one-man horse. You’ve got to have guys. We were fortunate last year, with the way we were, that Chris was able to sustain the whole year.”
Callier didn’t really have any set expectations for his freshman year, but he was confident that he’d find his way onto the field somehow.
Through two games, he has 86 rushing yards on 10 carries and has proven that it probably won’t take long for his high school success to carry over to the next level. He gained 39 yards on his first college run and could continue to see his carries rise in the coming weeks.
“Jesse had eight carries last game, and if we can actually increase Jesse to 10 or so, maybe even 12, and keep Chris around 20, then we’re really cooking,” Sarkisian said. “But that’s the reality of the position. When you play running back, and you play against big, physical teams, you’re going to be a little sore.”
Callier appreciates the immediate playing time but isn’t making a big deal out of it.
“It’s cool,” he said. “It’s nice to get the ball and do what I can with it. … I’ve still got to work hard and stuff.”
He’s been especially important this week, with Polk nursing general soreness. Polk carried 20 times for 117 yards in Saturday’s win over Syracuse, then sat out practices Monday and Tuesday while Callier got the bulk of action with the first team.
“This year we’re just looking for longevity out of him,” Sarkisian said of his sophomore starter. “That’s why I’m not just going to pound him on a Tuesday for the sake of pounding him. He knows our system, he does our walk-throughs, so we’ll be fine.”
The only viable option behind Polk appears to be Callier, but the true freshman has shown the Huskies enough that they’re comfortable with their running game.
“It’s a sign of the system,” Thomas said. “Obviously, we can keep putting guys in who can do the job. I wouldn’t say I’m proud (of how UW’s running backs have responded); it’s the job.”
And it’s a job that never seems to be completed.
“I still think we can run the football better,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said of a ground game that ranks 72nd in the country in rushing yards per game (151.5). “And as we continue to improve, I think we’ll get better.”
Middle linebacker Cort Dennison sat out practice due to illness Thursday, but Sarkisian said he hoped to have him back on Saturday. When asked whether there was a possibility Dennison could miss the game, Sarkisian said: “I don’t think so. Potentially. He’s not feeling well.” True freshman Garret Gilliland is Dennison’s backup and would start in the event that the junior could not play. … Sarkisian has not ruled anyone out of Saturday’s game, although Fogerson appears to be doubtful because of the hip injury.