There will be a unique trait shared by the members of the Washington Huskies’ tailbacks this week.
They’re all tailbacks, and tailbacks only.
After using linebacker Shaq Thompson as the team’s primary ballcarrier the past three weeks — and with Dwayne Washington and Lavon Coleman banged up, Thompson was clearly the best option — the Huskies have moved Thompson back to his starting linebacker position and will actually rely on their running backs to run the ball on Saturday at No. 17 Arizona.
It will likely be a three-pronged approach. Fifth-year senior Deontae Cooper has been productive with his few touches this season, averaging 5.3 yards on 43 carries. Washington, a sophomore, returned last week from a chest injury and rushed for 33 yards on seven carries, including a 12-yard touchdown run.
“We’ve got to do a better job of making explosive runs and continue to find a way, and there’s going to be a breakthrough,” said Cooper, who missed the first three years of his UW career due to three separate knee injuries. “We’ve been doing a better job the last couple weeks.”
Coleman, a redshirt freshman, hasn’t played since injuring his shoulder against Oregon on Oct. 18. His 438 rushing yards rank second on the team, just behind Thompson’s total of 456 (Thompson achieved that number on just 61 carries; Coleman still leads the team with 106 attempts).
“I think both of those kids (Coleman and Washington) are really hitting their stride as far as game time, being ready to go, and going in there and doing some things,” running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said.
Bhonapha said he isn’t sure if Thompson will get any carries on Saturday, but that “I feel good about my group. All this focus has been on Shaq, him going in there and what he’s been able to do, which has been exciting. With that being said, I think one of the things that has failed to be talked about is, Coop has been productive every time he’s gotten the ball and gotten a chance. … I really think as a group we’re kind of moving toward the right direction.”
The trio of Coleman, Washington and Cooper have combined this season for 219 carries and 937 yards — an average of 4.3 yards per carry.
The gameplan won’t change, Bhonapha said, even without Thompson and his 7.5 yards per carry.
“It’s really the same thing,” he said. “As everybody knows here, Shaq is a special athlete and he’s going to make any game plan look good. I think the run game and stuff, we have to keep it as simple and basic for us in our room (and) the O-line, so we can really get into some of those groove calls and be productive.”
Offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said Cooper, Washington and Coleman have shared reps in practice this week, and that he doesn’t know which of those players will start at tailback.
With Thompson back at linebacker and top receiver John Ross III moving to cornerback full time, Smith is trying to get more production out of an offense that averages a Pac-12-worst 365 yards per game. That means more help from freshmen receivers Dante Pettis and Brayden Lenius, both of whom have seen the field more in the past two games than they did earlier this season.
“We feel good with Dwayne, and Coop’s done some good things,” Smith said. “Lavon’s getting himself back. Those guys can carry the load. Other guys have to step up. I think we’ve progressed a little at the receiver position — some of those young guys, we’ll try and get some explosive plays out of Dante and Brayden. …
“We’ve just got to keep working in those situations — try to get the ball a little bit to the tight end — with Shaq and John going to the other side.”