Keith Bhonapha is not searching for specialists.
In the wide world of college football, there are big backs and small backs, goal-line backs and scat backs, third-down backs and home-run hitters who can’t pick up a blitz.
Few are the total package.
But, when it comes to recruiting running backs, Bhonapha is hoping to find the few.
“I think the thing I’m trying to get is that all-around back,” said Bhonapha, UW’s eighth-year running backs coach, last month. “Obviously we want first-round draft picks, second-round draft picks. But at the same time, (we want) guys that can push the needle to take us to that next step where we start talking about winning those Rose Bowls and national championships.
“I think the past couple years, the guys I’ve evaluated and the way it’s gone down in the recruiting process, we’ve ended up with some really good players that I think are young and going to be able to take the next step and help us as a running back unit be really solid.”
That’s despite the fact that just three of Washington’s seven scholarship running backs were ranked as four-star recruits, and Bhonapha’s only draft picks at UW — Myles Gaskin in 2019 and Dwayne Washington in 2016 — both went in the seventh round.
Of course, Gaskin also graduated as Washington’s all-time leading rusher, so Bhonapha’s development doesn’t demand much defending. But can his current crop of running backs — to borrow Bhonapha’s phrase — take the next step? Behind an experienced offensive line, in the second year of a system, will the elusive “all-around back” emerge?
We’ll see in September. But here’s a peek at the pecking order as we exit the spring.
Running back depth chart
Sean McGrew, senior, 5-7, 180, Torrance, Calif.
Cameron Davis, sophomore, 6-0, 205, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Richard Newton, junior, 6-0, 215, Lancaster, Calif.
Kamari Pleasant, senior, 6-0, 225, Rialto, Calif.
Jay’Veon Sunday, redshirt freshman, 6-0, 210, Waco, Texas
Caleb Berry, freshman, 6-1, 220, Lufkin, Texas
Sam Adams II, redshirt freshman, 6-1, 200, Kirkland
It’s not particularly stunning, but McGrew is still the man.
Simply put, the sixth-year senior and St. John Bosco alum is the most complete running back on the roster. He’s a tough runner between the tackles. He’s explosive in open space. He catches the ball well. He doesn’t fumble the football. And, for his slender size, his pass protection is improving. He has undeniably earned his spot atop the Husky depth chart.
But, circling back to Bhonapha, McGrew is not the most likely first- or second-round pick at his position.
That designation goes to Cameron Davis.
“His overall game I think has taken the next step,” Bhonapha said of the silky sophomore. “There was a time when (you thought), ‘Does he really know the plays? Does he really know protection?’ But I will say this: Over the course of these past two weeks, I have seen that (growth).
“The one thing I’m excited for, which I think Husky fans are going to be excited for, this is a guy who is a difference-maker with the ball in his hands. He has the ability to change gears. He’s tough. He’s physical. We’ve got to get these guys taking the next step and not giving them too big of a plate early. But I’m really excited about where CD is at.”
Husky fans, too, should be excited about the prospective one-two punch of McGrew and Davis — the latter actual being the back with the most first-team reps this spring.
But don’t forget about Richard Newton.
It’s Newton, not McGrew, who led Washington with 11 total touchdowns in just 10 games in 2019. And it’s Newton, not Davis, who exploded up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown in the Purple vs. Gold game last weekend.
The 6-0, 215-pound junior’s bumper-car running style is unabashedly unique. But he has also struggled to stay on the field, whether because of injuries or the unspecified quasi-suspension that kept him out of the final two games last fall.
Still, Husky head coach Jimmy Lake said Saturday that “this could be his biggest year yet.”
And if Newton is right, he needs to be in the rotation.
“His focus has been really good this spring and this offseason so far,” Bhonapha said of Newton last month. “I’m just excited for him to keep going and keep building on his momentum as we go into the summer leading into the season. As you guys know, Rich has some really good talent and we’re hoping to showcase that this spring and definitely into the season as we move forward.”
So, here’s the question: are there available carries for anyone else? If McGrew, Davis and Newton all avoid injury issues, it’s hard to imagine room for a fourth regular contributor at the running back spot. And yet, Pleasant — a 6-0, 225-pound sixth-year senior — has proven himself to some degree, compiling 144 rushing yards with 4.2 yards per carry and three touchdowns in four games last fall.
And, as for fresh faces, redshirt freshman Jay’Veon Sunday provides a frenetic energy that may eventually find the field.
“He’s definitely a character. I love that guy,” McGrew said of the 6-0, 210-pound Sunday, who redshirted last season while recovering from an injury. “He brings great energy. He runs hard. We call him a little Tasmanian devil out there, because as soon as he gets the ball in his hands he wants to run into people.”
But at Washington, you don’t earn the right to run into people until you can pick up blitzes and understand assignments as well. That’s where Sunday may still lag behind.
All things considered, Washington’s running-back room may be as deep as any on the roster. But seven tailbacks can’t all contribute against Montana on Sept. 4.
“It’s very similar to the QB room — they’re going to push each other,” UW offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “But at some point I think we do need to narrow it down once we get close to the season and really try to hone in on getting guys in a rhythm, in a groove. So I think eventually we’ll get there and we’ll see who that will be.”
For now, your best bet is it being some combination of McGrew, Davis and Newton.
But as spring turns to summer, the running-back competition continues to cook.
“Our running-back room is stacked with talent,” Lake said after applauding Newton’s touchdown run in the Purple vs. Gold game. “You guys see all those guys back there that are also making plays, and those guys are going to continue to push.
“That’s the awesome thing about competition, and that’s what I love about it. There’s competition all the way throughout all of our position groups on our whole team, on both sides of the ball and special teams. That competition is going to make our team better.”
Coming tomorrow: wide receiver