SEATTLE — Bishop Sankey totaled so many rushing yards and scored so many touchdowns for the Washington Huskies the past two seasons, it might have been easy to forget what very well could have been Sankey’s most important accomplishment.
He never missed a game due to injury. And he carried the ball 327 times in 2013, setting a school record.
That’s what makes replacing him this season — or attempting to, anyway — such a multi-faceted proposition. Sankey wasn’t just talented. He was durable, the kind of back who could carry the ball 30 times and still report to practice the next Monday ready to roll.
“Running back is a tough position,” said fifth-year senior Deontae Cooper, one of four Huskies backs vying for playing time in 2014. “Credit to Bishop for doing what he did last year. I’m not sure if we’re going to have that.”
Head coach Chris Petersen has made it clear that he doesn’t mind a by-committee approach, though he obviously would prefer for one player to emerge as the No. 1 option and be able to carry the ball enough times to develop an in-game rhythm.
“I know we’re going to need ‘em all and they’re all going to get an opportunity,” Petersen said. “And then when the game’s played, those that stay healthy, those that produce, are going to get more carries. We have a big sign in our training room: ‘Durability (is) more important than ability,’ and I certainly believe that at that position.”
To that end, the Huskies are in what qualifies as a unique position considering recent history. Sankey was a bit of an unknown entering his sophomore season in 2012, but prior to that, Chris Polk gave the Huskies three consecutive years of consistent, straight-ahead running, starting 38 games and carrying the ball 779 times. And former head coach Steve Sarkisian has not been shy about boasting that in each of his five seasons at UW, the Huskies had a 1,000-yard rusher.
None of this year’s competitors are as established, but each seems to offer something different. Cooper and fifth-year senior Jesse Callier are the veterans, players whose careers were at one point sidetracked by injuries — four ACL tears among them, three of them for Cooper — but who enter the 2014 season healthy and eager to contribute. Each had strong performances during UW’s most recent open scrimmage. And Cooper’s 11-carry, 166-yard performance last season at Oregon State suggests he could still prove to be a valuable asset in the backfield.
There’s Dwayne Washington, the 6-foot-2, 219-pound freshman whose combination of speed and size best manifested itself in that same OSU game, in which Washington carried 11 times for 141 yards and two touchdowns. If not for early-season fumble troubles as a freshman, he might have seen more carries, and surely will in 2014.
The mystery candidate is redshirt freshman Lavon Coleman, the only player of the four who hasn’t played in a college game. But his size (5-foot-11, 217 pounds) and physical running style adds a unique element to the mix, and he’s made the most of his practice repetitions throughout spring and fall.
“I think he brings some of that old-school run game mentality, being kind of a thicker guy, big, downhill, bruiser-type kid,” running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. “I think he’s going to be exciting, him being so young and developing where he’s at from the spring as far as really starting to get in with the offense and now coming into fall camp, as we work into the season.”
And, of course, linebacker Shaq Thompson is expected to get at least a few opportunities to carry the ball. He’s been insistent that defense will forever remain his priority, though he’s spent enough time working with the running backs during practice to believe Petersen plans to use him there.
Bhonapha doesn’t think anyone has taken control of the starting job, and Petersen says he doesn’t know who will be on the field for the first snap of UW’s Aug. 30 season opener at Hawaii.
“I think we’re definitely always looking for that guy that’s going to step up and take that next level, and be that guy in the group,” Bhonapha said. “I think right now with the talent that we do have in the room, there will be some committee work. To say there’s one guy that’s truly stepped out and said ‘this is the guy,’ I think we’re still working on that.”
His players have said Bhonapha’s presence itself is an upgrade. UW’s running backs coach in 2013 was Johnny Nansen, who also coached special teams. So having a coach dedicated to one position has helped.
“I felt like having a real solid running back coach come in and really develop us and get us better and teach us the game, and help hone in on some of our skills, our footwork and stuff like that, it was great,” Cooper said.
“As a group, I felt like Coach Bhonapha came in, there was really an upgrade as far as the fundamental stuff, the technique stuff, the teaching. A lot more developing in the room.”
That development will be on display in Honolulu in 10 days. Only then will Petersen and the Huskies begin to learn what they truly have in the backfield.
“We’re kind of just controlling what we can control right now, and just playing our roles,” Callier said. “That’s one big thing coach Petersen said — just play your role and know your lane. Right now, we’re all just hungry and going out for the position. Excited to see what happens.”