Washington has never had to replace such production out of the backfield.
Over the past two seasons, Bishop Sankey combined to rush for 3,309 yards and 36 touchdowns as the Huskies’ featured running back, the best two-year run of any player in UW history. Now Sankey is in the running to start for the Tennessee Titans — alongside another former Husky, Jake Locker — and figuring out who might replace him at UW remains a puzzle.
There isn’t one obvious headliner to take over, but Deontae Cooper is convinced the pieces are in place to carry the collective load.
“We’ve got a very talented group,” said Cooper, a senior running back. “I heard a saying a long time ago: ‘What’s more dangerous than one set of fresh legs?’ Well, we’ve got four here. It’s a dangerous group. I feel like at any point in a game, any of us can take over. So it’s going to be fun, and I feel like a lot of us are going to play this year.”
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Adding more fun to the mix is outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, whom UW’s new coaching staff first tried out as a running back in the spring. That experiment continued on Thursday, when the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Thompson got the first carries in practice with the first-string offense.
Thompson, though, has been adamant that his role is as a linebacker first and running back second. And if he does get a chance to play on offense, it would almost certainly be in special packages — not as the full-time, featured guy.
So who is first in line to replace Sankey? Well, there isn’t clear-cut front-runner, and the four leading candidates all carry some question marks.
Cooper and Jesse Callier, both seniors, are the most experienced, but both have a well-documented history of injuries. Cooper sat out three consecutive seasons after three major knee injuries, but his return to the field was the feel-good story of UW’s season in 2013, and he expects to be even more productive this year.
“I’m feeling good right now,” said Cooper, who has switched to jersey No. 6. “Participating in spring definitely helped me as far as getting an edge in the playbook. I’m coming out here trying to coach up the young guys and trying to continue to perfect my craft and come out here and compete every day.”
Callier was the starter for the 2012 opener but tore his anterior cruciate ligament on the Huskies’ first offensive series of the season; Callier the missed much of this spring with another minor injury, but through four days of fall camp he appears healthy and refreshed.
“I feel great,” Callier said. “I love competition. I’m a competitor and those guys, they’re competing every day, too. So I’m excited to see what happens Aug. 30 (against Hawaii).”
Sophomore Dwayne Washington, at 6-2, 219 pounds, might be the Huskies’ most physically gifted runner, with an impressive blend of power and speed. (He was among the team’s fastest players tested in the spring, running a hand-timed 4.44-second 40-yard dash.) Washington, like Callier, missed much of the spring (with a hamstring injury), but he said he’s fine now. That showed Thursday when he broke away from the first-team defense for a long run in an 11-on-11 drill.
Finally, there’s Lavon Coleman. After a strong spring, the redshirt freshman has remained in the rotation this week — and he’s only helped himself.
“He’s a great kid,” Callier said. “The one thing I like about Lavon is, he’s very straight-minded. He’s on top of his stuff. He acts like a veteran, and that’s very special and exciting to see from a young cat.”
As with the quarterbacks, UW coach Chris Petersen isn’t in a rush to name a starting running back.
“I think that running-back question is always hard to answer until we really scrimmage (and) play for real,” Petersen said. “You don’t really tackle those guys in practice. It’s all kind of tag-off stuff, so we’ll see when they break tackles and those type of things.”
UW remembers Thomas
Carol James, widow of legendary Washington coach Don James, was among those to pay tribute to Abner Thomas during a celebration of life service before a packed room at the Don James Center on Thursday afternoon.
James recalled that Thomas, a longtime UW athletic department special assistant who died July 27 at age 86, was the first to greet her and her children at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1975, shortly after Don James had been hired as the Huskies’ new head coach.
“He said, ‘Follow me.’ And when Abner says, ‘Follow me,’ you follow,” Carol James said. “And that was the first of many, many acts of kindness Abner did for our family for over 40 years.”
Thomas was known as “Big Ab” around the athletic department, where he volunteered and worked for 41 years an operations and recruiting assistant. To generations of players, he was “Uncle Ab,” a father figure, a friend and a mentor.