There is an argument that Chris Polk is the greatest running back, in a long line of great running backs, in the history of the University of Washington. His 4,049 rushing yards, ranked 2nd all time in Husky history, just barely behind Napoleon Kaufman’s 4,106. This is despite the fact that Kaufman played in 44 games as a Husky while Polk played in just 40 games. Polk also holds the school record for yards per game (101.2 ypg), 100 yard games (21), and is tied with Kaufman and Greg Lewis as the only Huskies with three consecutive 1000 yard seasons. In 2011, Polk finished 2nd all-time in total yards with 1,488 yards, behind the ridiculous 1,695 yards put up by Corey Dillon in 1996. Despite the shock of Chris Polk going undrafted in the NFL draft, after being projected as a 2nd round pick, many observers expect Polk to earn a major role with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Whether Chris Polk is the greatest running back in the history of the Huskies (against such competition as Kaufman, Greg Lewis, Cory Dillon, and Hugh Mcelhenny) is a great matter of debate. But, what can not be debated is that it will be a tough act to follow for whoever wins the job in 2012. Who wins this job and how well they do will go a long way toward determining the success of the Husky season. Keith Price suffered from injuries all season long last year, but one thing that kept him going was the ability of Chris Polk to take on much of the load. The best way to keep Price on the field this year will be to have an effective running back. Will Polk’s replacement be able to have the durability and productivity to help keep Price healthy and open up his options for passing down field?
Let’s look at the options;
Jesse Callier is many ways can be viewed as the heir to the position. The junior-to-be has a total of 84 carriers for 693 yards in his career. He also has 25 receptions for 153 yards. While Callier was lightly used due to the production of Chris Polk, after being in Steve Sarkisian’s system for the past two years, he seems to have the most experience to step into that role. However, Callier will definitely have his work cut out for himself to beat back a challenge from up-and-coming sophomore Bishop Sankey.
Bishop Sankey shocked Pacific Northwest football fans when the 4-star recruit pulled out of his commitment with Washington State to come over to Seattle. Some thought he ought to have redshirted last year since Polk and Callier would take up all the carries. But, Sarkisian saw that Sankey was too good to keep off the field and played him as a true freshman, both on special teams and occasionally on the offense. Sankey showed some glimpses of brilliance, ultimately ending up with 28 carries for 187 yards. His best game came against Colorado when he ran for 71 yards on just 8 carries.
In spring ball, Steve Sarkisian said that Callier and Sankey were very close on the depth chart, calling them 1A and 1B. It seems most likely at this point that one of those two will get the majority of the carries, but it is also possible that Sarkisian will go into the season rotating both of them in to see who is more effective. But, if neither is able to show much effectiveness, there are some additional options in the backfield.
The biggest question mark for Husky fans is the health and conditioning of Deontae Cooper. The highly touted 4-star redshirt sophomore has yet to play a down for the Huskies after not once, but twice tearing his ACL. Steve Sarkisian has indicated that he is working Cooper along slowly to make sure he can come back completely healthy. Cooper may not be ready to contribute right away, given his rehab schedule and the fact he has been out of football for over two years. So, even if his knee is 100%, conditioning may still take some time. But, if Cooper can get back up to his potential, the sky could still be the limit.
I expect to see Cooper get limited carries and maybe mostly work on special teams to begin with. But, if either Callier or Sankey are injured or ineffective, you might start seeing Cooper moved into the rotation. Then, it is just a matter of time to see where he fits in.
Then there are the wildcards. The Huskies have two freshmen RB who were rated 2-stars by Scout; incoming freshman Erich Wilson and redshirt freshman Dezden Petty. In addition, they have JC transfer Antavius Sims, who was also rated 2-stars out of high school. While 2-star recruits may not inspire excitement among the fans, the ratings system is not always entirely accurate. Steve Sarkisian obviously saw something in each of them to be willing to bring them in.
With the depth on the roster (6 running backs), it would seem that true freshman Erich Wilson is most likely to redshirt. The others who are not part of the regular rotation will almost certainly be heavily involved on special teams, with one of them likely earning a punt or kick off return spot.
But, there is also the fact that the running back position is wide open right now. If any of these six players were to come into fall camp and show themselves to be the ONE who needs to be on the field, that opportunity is there for them to take it.
Replacing a player like Chris Polk is almost impossible. But, Steve Sarkisian does appear to have restocked the stables with a number of players with great potential. The key question is whether any of them will be able to play at this level we have come to expect.
However, it seems like at least initially, the most likely scenario is to start with a “running back by committee” approach. I usually cringe at the idea of play by committee. Often this results in a number of players running in for a few ineffective plays, without any of them being able to get into the flow of the game. I want depth and getting players time on the field and better preparation, but I worry if there is not one focal point to the offense that all of them may become ineffective. In addition, it is important to Keith Price for him to have confidence in his backs. He needs to know that the player he hands the ball too will hold onto it. He needs to know the player behind him will have his back and protect him from sacks and open up holes in the line to run through when he has to scramble.
Ultimately though, the question I posited in the title is “Who will be the next great Husky running back?”. Looking at the six currently on the roster, I believe the answer to that question is Bishop Sankey. Whether he will be able to win the outright starting spot over Jesse Callier out of fall camp remains to be seen. But, based on what I saw out of each of them last year, Sankey looks to me to have the most potential. I see Sankey eventually getting more touches as the season moves on and then grabbing a stranglehold on the spot during his junior year. But, running back is a very difficult position to predict and if someone else wins the job, I would not be shocked to see it. What do you think?