Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks, James Williams and Keith Harrington have all proved their worth on the football field. So how should WSU running backs coach Jim Mastro decide which ones get to play this year?
LEWISTON, Idaho — The question is posed to Jim Mastro, Washington State’s running backs coach: Have you figured out a way to get four running backs on the field this season?
Mastro snorts, as if to say, “I wish.”
“No,” he says, sighing heavily. “Someone is gonna lose out.”
The question of who loses out is one that keeps Mastro up at night.
Running back is one of the smallest position groups on the team, so Mastro is close to all his six backs, and it kills him that he’ll have to pick and choose among the four backs in the mix for starting jobs right now.
“They’re all dynamic. It’s fun as heck as a coach, but it’s a little bit frustrating because somehow, sometime, we’ve got to find two. Two or three,” Mastro says.
So which two would you pick if you were him?
The senior Swiss Army knife who led the team with 1,217 all-purpose yards last year, who’s 10th on the list of all time all-purpose yard gainers in school history?
The big, bruising bulldozer of a back who tied for the team lead with 13 total touchdowns last season?
The human dynamo who led the team with 102 carries and 583 yards, and showed he can squirm out of any tackle, make entire defenses whiff, and juke, jump and vault his way into the end zone at all costs?
Or the energetic, versatile back you liken to a yo-yo, who was sidelined for a year due to injury and is now burning with a hunger that you know will take him to new heights on the field?
Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks, James Williams and Keith Harrington could each be starting on just about any depth chart in Division I college football. Yet, somehow, the running back gods have chosen to bless the Cougars’ Air Raid, and they’ve all ended up in Mastro’s room together. It’s both an enviable and an impossible situation for any coach to be in.
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Right now, Mastro almost wishes it were someone else’s problem.
“There’s not gonna be a right answer. That’s the problem,” he says. “No matter what, there’s a wrong answer because all four can play. They all look good right now.”
With the Cougars coming off a breakthrough season that saw their ground game soar to new heights in the Air Raid, the competition for playing time at the running back position is fiercer than ever before.
Wicks, Morrow and Williams combined for 1,660 rushing yards, 1,034 receiving yards and 31 touchdowns, and made WSU one of only four schools nationally whose backs eclipsed the 1,000-yard milestone in rushing and receiving.
Yet, Mastro has not forgotten the flashes of brilliance Harrington showed as a redshirt freshman in 2015, when Harrington was part of the trio of backs who became known as “Earth, Wind, Fire.” That year, the combo of Morrow, Wicks and Harrington finally ignited the Cougars’ running game. Harrington played in every game and compiled 238 rushing yards and 312 receiving yards, while scoring five total touchdowns.
An injury and a move to slot receiver kept Harrington off the field in 2016, but he’s now back and yearning to prove himself all over again.
“Just sitting out last year watching all three of them, the antsiness was killing me,” Harrington said. “Sitting there, not even on special teams, just watching, it’s hard. Last year definitely made me sit back and look at what I need to do this year to get right.”
So far, through the first week of fall camp, Morrow and Williams have been running with the first team, with Harrington and Wicks rotating with the second team.
“They’re all splitting time now, but when you get into game prep, you don’t have as many reps to go around,” Mastro says.
The four backs know that someone will inevitably get left out, but after three years together, they’ve figured out a way to co-exist and foster a brotherhood that transcends the elephant-in-the-room question of who will play and who won’t.
“Literally nothing has changed,” says Williams, a third-year sophomore who, in his breakout 2016 season finished second on the team with 953 all-purpose yards, and scored seven touchdowns. “We’re best friends in the huddle and in the meeting rooms. And out here, we go at each other, but we don’t go at each other’s throats at all.”
If anything, this fall camp has brought them even closer, says Morrow.
“We’re always doing things together, especially the four of us. We always hang out and joke around,” Morrow says. “When we get on the field, we’re gonna try to be the most explosive that we can possibly be. But it’s never any negativity. We want everybody to succeed because that drives you to succeed even more.”
The competition for starting jobs might well extend through the season, Mastro says, explaining that this should keep all four backs on their toes as their jostle to outdo their competitors every single week.
Playing time “is fluid and it can change every day of the week,” Mastro says. “Three guys might play one week and three different guys might play the next week. It just depends on production.”