SEATTLE — Washington running back Sean McGrew stopped by Barnes & Noble on Monday to pick up two books to read during the upcoming season.
He’s currently in the middle of The Alchemist — a widely translated Brazilian novel originally published in 1988 — and can’t stop talking about how helpful it’s been. Even though he’s not finished, he already feels comfortable declaring it his favorite book.
The McGrew of three years ago probably wouldn’t believe that. In fact, he’d be pretty surprised to learn he had a favorite book at all.
McGrew wasn’t always a reader. When he first arrived at UW and head coach Chris Petersen preached that books could change lives, McGrew was skeptical to say the least. He preferred video games or television — anything else, really. Reading didn’t rank very high on his list of hobbies.
But after his redshirt freshman season, McGrew was struggling to adjust. He was a star at St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, one that rushed for 5,762 yards and 76 touchdowns on 630 carries during his high school career. He was the 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year in California, a four-star recruit and the No. 5 all-purpose back in the country.
Then he arrived at UW, and he had to wait.
“I think it’s tough for new college athletes who went from being the guy in high school,” McGrew said, “and then coming on to a college team and they aren’t the guy right away like they expected to be.”
After redshirting in 2016, McGrew saw the field in just seven games as a redshirt freshman the next season. It was easy to get frustrated when he was playing behind Myles Gaskin, an eventual four-year starter and UW’s career rushing leader.
Following the 2017, McGrew was searching for a way to embrace his situation. He remembered Petersen’s philosophy about books, so that’s where he decided to start. Two of his selections — The Slight Edge and 12 Rules for Life — didn’t change his life, but they certainly changed his perspective.
“It’s real easy to get down like, ‘Oh man, I’m not playing,’ and stuff,” McGrew said. “That’s kind of how I was at first because obviously, you’re an 18-year-old kid. It took a long time but I definitely matured and had a different mindset about it. All I could do was learn and just get better every day, which was the goal.”
Over the years, McGrew said he learned to stop comparing himself to others. Instead, he concentrated on improving himself — and it made a difference that running backs coach Keith Bhonapha immediately noticed when spring practice opened last year. McGrew had a tightened focus in meetings and an increased intensity at practice that continued throughout the season. And while Gaskin still took the majority of the carries, McGrew started making the most of his opportunities.
“Coming through to this summer, I just kept checking in on him and it sounded like he had a really good summer in the weight room with the strength and conditioning coaches,” Bhonapha said. “Really positive attitude and was really doing the same things through fall camp.
“I’m really excited to see his growth as we go through the season. He’s a fun guy to coach, fun to be around because he really does care. I think he has a little bit of an edge where he wants to show people what he can do.”
McGrew played in 13 of UW’s 14 games in 2018. He rushed for 226 yards and a touchdown on 50 carries and combined with Salvon Ahmed and Kamari Pleasant to carry the load when Gaskin missed two games due to injury. They filled in so well that Petersen referred to the combination as a “three-headed monster.” That kind of success, McGrew said, builds confidence.
And Bhonapha can see the resulting growth. Throughout spring practice and fall camp, McGrew has cut down on his mistakes. That consistency is what set Gaskin apart, Bhonapha said, and it’s what McGrew is starting to find.
“As a coach, you always have those guys that make big splash plays here and there and then they mess up six plays,” Bhonapha said. “All I ask for the group is for them to be consistent. … That’s all I ask and I’m really glad that Sean has really taken that step to being consistent when it comes to his play.”
With Gaskin gone — he was selected by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the NFL Draft — there are plenty of carries up for grabs in 2019. And while Ahmed looks primed to become the feature back, the Huskies are likely going to staff the position more by committee.
Simply put, it seems McGrew’s patience is about to pay off.
“I knew my time was going to come eventually when I was going to have to carry the flag,” McGrew said. “I kind of see that’s how it is right now.”