Both Jesse Callier and Deontae Cooper spent the offseason rehabbing a torn ACL. Both were deemed healthy enough to play in the season opener, and both carried the ball at least once in that victory over Boise State. However, it was Dwayne Washington that ended fall camp at #2 on the running back depth chart, and it was Washington that received the majority of the carries behind starting back Bishop Sankey. 13 carries to be exact, good for a solid 52 yards and one touchdown. The performance seemed to help solidify Dwayne’s status as the primary backup.
Saturday’s game against Illinois changed that equation entirely. D. Washington carried the ball twice in the first half and fumbled the ball both times. The Illini recovered the football on both occasions. Needless to say, the redshirt freshman did not receive another carry during the win. Jesse Callier was then given the opportunity to fill in during Sankey’s breathers on the sideline. In only six rushing attempts Callier racked up 66 yards and a touchdown along with two catches for 30 yards. Perhaps just as importantly, he didn’t fumble.
Sankey is going to continue to carry the ball at least 20-25 times per game, and Sark has shown a willingness to ride his star back to the tune of 30-35 carries when necessary. But Callier’s performance at Soldier Field was an announcement of the junior’s clean bill of health. A player still hampered by a knee injury doesn’t perform at that level.
It’s also important to remember that Callier was once thought to be the 1A to Sankey’s 1B in a two-back tandem to start the 2012 season. Then Callier tore his ACL in the very first game against San Diego State, making Sankey the de facto starter. Before midseason his role as a feature back was cemented and by the end of the year he had racked up over 1400 yards.
Callier was robbed of his opportunity to split carries and possibly shine. It’s unlikely he would have outshined Sankey, who turned out to be massively talented, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have showed himself to be a starting-caliber back. At the very least his good health should point us back in time to his two years behind Chris Polk. In 2010 Callier ran for 433 yards. Used more sparingly in 2011, he ran for 260 yards, but in both years he averaged over five yards per carry. I think that solid backup-level production is Callier’s floor as long as he is healthy, and his ceiling is unknown.
If the Huskies bury Idaho State early, which is likely to happen, Coach Sarkisian may use the second half as an opportunity to evaluate Callier and Dwayne Washington. Dwayne needs to show that his back to back fumbles were a fluke. Callier simply needs to take advantage of his carries for the second week in a row. Given that he is a veteran with a track record of efficient running, another positive performance could lead to a regular dosage of double-digit carries going forward. Sankey is the unquestioned feature back, but in the no-huddle offense implemented this season, there is ample touches for a backup during his necessary breaks on the sideline.
Dwayne Washington brings size to the table at 6’1″ and 220-pounds, so don’t assume that he will simply fade out of the picture entirely. Even if Callier does indeed take the lead for now, the battle of the backups will likely continue.