By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — For Johri Fogerson, having his natural position taken away from him came much quicker than having to earn it back.
Last August, the former O’Dea High School star running back showed up for a practice midway through his first fall camp at the University of Washington and found a white jersey in his locker — the color worn by defensive players at Husky workouts. He eventually worked his way into the rotation at safety, played in seven games as a true freshman, and entered spring camp earlier this year listed as a co-starter.
But after several interceptions and impressive runbacks in the spring, Fogerson got called into the office of new head coach Steve Sarkisian. A long discussion between the two presented an opportunity to move back to the running back position — thanks in large part to three of the team’s top four rushers leaving the program in the spring — and Fogerson jumped at the chance.
“I kept asking Coach Sark about it,” he said of the possibility of returning to offense. “When I’d get an interception or something in practice, I’d tease him. He’d say, ‘Maybe, maybe.’”
Finally, at the start of this fall camp, Sarkisian said yes.
Back where he belongs, the former high school state player of the year has quickly found himself in another starting battle. Fogerson’s impressive fall camp has put him on the short list of possible starters at the tailback position.
“I’ve been really impressed,” Sarkisian said Monday. “He’s exceeded my initial expectations from when we first decided to make the move.”
Having dismissed leading rusher Terence Dailey from the team, then seeing Brandon Johnson and David Freeman leave the program for unspecified reasons, a somewhat desperate Sarkisian was looking for depth at the tailback position when he called Fogerson into his office. Sarkisian had watched footage of Fogerson’s days at O’Dea and liked what he saw.
“He was so slender at that time,” Sarkisian said this week. “Now he’s a more physical back, yet he’s got a nice feel in the pass game.”
Having little time to make a second first impression, the 6-foot-1, 191-pound Fogerson put himself smack in the middle of the tailback battle by breaking off some big runs in practices and being one of the stars of the Huskies’ two scrimmages. While sophomore Chris Polk appears to be the front-runner for the job — at Monday’s practice, Polk broke two long runs that helped him continue to pull away from the competition — Fogerson is part of the discussion for extended playing time at a position where Sarkisian is likely to rotate several players.
“It’s not like I’m a rookie,” Fogerson said after breaking a 20-yard, catch-and-run at Monday’s practice. “I did go through last fall camp as a running back. So it’s not like all the running back talent went out the window. I feel good back there.”
In 2007, while leading O’Dea to the state championship game, Fogerson rushed for 2,545 yards and 36 touchdowns — eye-popping numbers that pleased then-UW coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff.
But Fogerson’s first fall camp saw several other runners emerge, and injuries on defense led Willingham to make the silent switch. Fogerson wasn’t overly happy about playing defense, yet he dutifully went about filling in where he was needed.
In his heart, Fogerson was always a running back — no matter where he played on the field.
“It feels natural,” he said of being back on offense. “I like getting the ball and reading what’s going to happen before it happens. That’s a talent I like to use to my advantage.”
Teammates have been impressed with his smooth transition.
“He has really good vision, he runs the field really well and he’s done a really good job this fall,” said quarterback Jake Locker, who has taken an obvious liking to Fogerson in the short passing game.
Even Polk, with whom Fogerson is mired in a five-way battle for the starting job, had good things to say about the Huskies’ “new” tailback.
“Johri’s a running back at heart,” he said. “He made the transition real fast.”
Fogerson is just hoping that he’s done enough to impress the new coaching staff.
“The job’s still up in the air,” he said of a tailback battle that also includes Willie Griffin, Curtis Shaw and Demitrius Bronson. “The best man’s going to win. Straight up, that’s how it’s going to go. You’ve got five talented running backs, so it’s not going to be an easy job to get — by any means.”
Four players were injured during the course of Monday’s practice, but Sarkisian downplayed the severity of their ailments. Cornerback Quinton Richardson (hip pointer), safety David Batts (shoulder) and tight ends Kavario Middleton (hamstring) and Dorson Boyce (leg) did not finish the session and are likely to miss another day or two of practices. “None of those (injuries) are serious,” Sarkisian said. “But they are things that are nagging.” … Three freshmen — quarterback Keith Price, defensive end Talia Crichton and linebacker Tim Rucker — were not allowed to participate in Monday’s practice because the NCAA is reviewing their eligibility. “It’s not an issue of being denied or accepted; they just haven’t even been reviewed,” said Sarkisian, who expects all three players to be at practice today. … Sarkisian blamed a shoulder injury on the fumble problems that have set Bronson back in the tailback battle. … Cornerback Desmond Trufant, a true freshman and the younger brother of Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant, saw time with the No. 1 defense Monday. Redshirt freshman Adam Long also worked with the first team while filling in for Richardson. … Fullback Paul Homer, center Ryan Tolar, safety Victor Aiyewa and offensive tackles Morgan Rosborough and Skyler Fancher were among the players who returned to practice Monday after missing multiple days with injuries.