By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
LEWISTON — It doesn’t matter much that whenever Gerard Wicks runs the ball he is brought down by the Washington State defense shortly after crossing the line of scrimmage.
The freshman running back’s runs may not last long, but they finish far downfield with a trail of battered defenders adjusting their pads and muttering in his wake.
“He’s just running right now, I don’t know how to explain it, like a horse with blinders,” quarterback Connor Halliday said after Tuesday’s practice. “If he doesn’t do anything else he’s running full speed no matter what.”
There is not much spare playing time to be found at running back. Marcus Mason led the team in all-purpose yards last season but was unseated from the starting spot by Theron West in the spring.
Halliday already has predicted that Jamal Morrow — a redshirt freshman, like Wicks — someday will play professionally.
But Wicks’ ability to plant his toe in the ground, and burst through a vertical seam has made him one of the team’s most effective players through the first four days of WSU’s fall camp at Sacajawea Junior High.
“He’s just so powerful,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “Those arm tackles, he’s just running through them. Other guys can get through them, he just gets through them in a different manner.”
Today likely will be the first day the Cougars don full pads, and it’s easier for a running back to be slippery when there is less for defenders to hang on to. But on many of Wicks’ runs the defenders do not even put a hand on him until he’s heading toward the endzone while tacklers struggle to change direction and turn back as he passes them.
“He’s always been explosive and powerful,” coach Mike Leach said. “Now that he’s being decisive I think it’s coming together real well for him.”
Wicks’ runs are nothing new of course. Throughout the season the team holds “Thursday Night Football” underclassmen scrimmages to conclude Thursday’s practice.
“It was really great,” Wicks said of the experience last season. “It was just like a game to me and Jamal as we redshirted. We just play on Thursdays instead of Saturdays.”
In these sessions, he and Morrow were clearly a step ahead of their peers, physically ready to contribute on Saturdays, but relegated to the scout team in order to preserve a year of eligibility.
With Mason and Teondray Caldwell returning, and West’s emergence, Wicks likely will have to wait his turn before getting more than the occasional carry in games. But his sudden, violent style of running has situational merit and the team already has shown willingness to create a niche for him as a short-yardage back this season.
To end practice the Cougars do an 11-on-11 session with the first team marching down the field in five-yard increments one way before turning around so the second team can march its way back. When the offense gets within 20 yards of the end zone Wicks has seen his carries go up, and he’s rewarded his quarterbacks with touchdowns despite the crowded conditions of the shrunken field.
While his running has been productive, there are aspects to Wicks’ game he needs to improve. Almost every time the Cougars run the ball, it is because the quarterback has checked them down from a passing play. So for a running back to stay on the field, it is almost more important they be able to catch passes and pick up the blitz, areas in Wicks’ game that need polishing.
But there will be times when the team needs to plug in someone who can soften up the defense some while getting up the field fast enough to make it worth giving up a pass play and in those occasions, it’s becoming more apparent who they will turn to.
“Running back, in my opinion, is a lot like quarterback in the sense that you need to get in a rhythm. And it’s hard to get in a rhythm playing running back and getting maybe two touches a quarter, whatever it is, in the running game,” Halliday said. “He does a heck of a job coming off the bench and coming in ready to play.”