By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Jesse Callier knew his time would come.
Now that it’s here, the University of Washington’s top returning tailback doesn’t know just how much time he has.
After spending the past two seasons as the primary backup to workhorse back Chris Polk, Callier is the front-runner to replace the future NFL draft pick … to a degree. While Callier is likely to get the bulk of the carries for UW this season, the 205-pound junior-to-be probably won’t be bearing the 25-carry-a-game haul that Polk lifted for much of his UW career.
“I’m up to whatever they ask for,” Callier said this week. “If it’s 25 carries a game, then I’ll do it. If it’s 12, then I’ll do it. It’s just up to the coaches.”
Head coach Steve Sarkisian said he hasn’t yet decided how the Huskies’ ground game will take shape this season. He utilized a multi-headed attack for most of his career as an offensive assistant at USC, and Sarkisian expected to feature multiple backs when he arrived at UW in 2009.
But Polk’s emergence as a power back who seemed to get better as a game wore on forced Sarkisian to re-evaluate his approach to the ground game — and Polk rewarded him by breaking several school records, getting almost 65 percent of UW’s carries last season and gaining almost six times as many rushing yards as any other Huskies runner.
“We had the luxury here for three years with Chris of having that guy who could carry the load as a feature back,” Sarkisian said. “But I’m not opposed, by any means, of going back to having multiple backs back there. But we have to see what these guys can really do.”
The 225-pound Polk played bigger than his size, while Callier, who weighs 205, has mostly been a change-of-pace back at UW.
“Chris took a lot of hits,” quarterback Keith Price said. “Of course, Jesse doesn’t have the body of Chris. So we’ll find ways to make this successful.”
Callier scoffs at the idea that he can’t run between the tackles, and his senior season at Warren High School in the Los Angeles area proves that he can carry an offense. He led the state of California with 3,010 rushing yards as a senior, scoring 43 touchdowns in the process.
As a UW freshman, Callier had 433 yards on 77 carries as Polk’s primary backup in 2010, then he rushed only 47 times for 260 yards as a sophomore last fall.
Sarkisian hasn’t even officially handed Callier the starting job yet, saying that he and sophomore-to-be Bishop Sankey could battle well into the fall. It seems likely that whoever does end up starting will only carry a 60/40 or, at best, 70/30 load in games.
“We know Jesse and Bishop because they have played for us, so we know what they bring,” Sarkisian said this week, “and I think we’ve got a healthy competition going, battling and competing. Each of them want a bunch of carries.”
Callier said he would prefer to carry the load, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be asked to follow in Polk’s footsteps in terms of carrying the ball 25 to 30 times per game. Callier watched his former teammate closely over the years in hopes of picking up some pointers on being a feature back.
When asked this week what specific things he learned from Polk, Callier said: “North and south. Lower your shoulder, north and south. And YAC — yards after contact. That’s one thing Chris always mentioned to us: YAC, YAC, YAC. That’s a big thing for us.”
Callier, who has worked hard in the weightroom to add muscle to his frame, believes he can carry a Polk-like load if asked.
“I feel I can produce every down,” he said. “If that’s what the coaches want me to do, then I’ll do it.”
Replacing Polk won’t be easy, but the Huskies are going to use whatever means necessary to try.
“It’s definitely different,” said Price, who stepped into the shoes of legendary quarterback Jake Locker this time last year and promptly put up better numbers in his first season as a starter. “But we’ve got to move on. We moved on without Jake, so we’ve got to move on without Chris.”