SEATTLE – Humility is one of the most apparent traits of Lavon Coleman’s personality. And it was taught to him in steady doses.
To understand why the Washington Huskies redshirt freshman running back is so modest and eager to deflect credit from himself, go back to his freshman year at Lompoc (California) High School, and an ill-advised remark to a teammate who played offensive guard, and the resulting heart-to-heart that changed Coleman’s perspective.
Coleman hears it, too, from his father, Leander, who did his best to instill in his son an attitude that every running back would do well to possess.
The offensive line is everything. They push. They block. You just run behind them.
“It was just one of those things where you thought it was all about you,” Lavon said, referring to that conversation he had as a high-school freshman, “but then you realize when you watch the film – without those five guys, we don’t really go anywhere. That is the team.”
His father will not let him forget it.
“I have always told him that you give credit where credit is due. And you must respect that line, because the line makes both things possible,” Leander said. “With the line believing in you and trusting in you, and you trusting in them, you can see some glory days coming.”
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There are a considerable amount of rushing yards to acquire and victories to achieve before Lavon Coleman can claim glory at the University of Washington, but the 5-foot-11, 217-pound power runner has already established himself as an essential part of Washington’s offense through his first two collegiate games.
First, Coleman rushed for 78 yards on 17 carries at Hawaii, including six carries for 37 yards to help kill the clock on the Huskies’ final possession.
Then, he emerged from the Huskies’ four-man backfield as the team’s premier rusher during last week’s game against Eastern Washington, leading a multi-pronged rushing attack that gained 356 yards by chipping in 118 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
His running style is probably more Chris Polk than Bishop Sankey, though junior receiver Jaydon Mickens compares Coleman’s patience to that of Sankey, who set UW’s single-season rushing record in 2013.
“He definitely looks the part, I can tell you that much,” senior offensive tackle Ben Riva said. “Big, strong and fast.”
Of course, it is impossible to talk about Huskies running backs from Lompoc without first mentioning Napoleon Kaufman, the UW’s career rushing leader and one of the most heralded names in program history. He, too, is a graduate of Lompoc High
Kaufman and Coleman met each other early in Coleman’s career at Lompoc High – where Coleman helped win two CIF Southern Section Northwest championships, and where Kaufman starred from 1988-90 – and Kaufman, a pastor now, has acted as a sort of mentor.
He’s taught him, Coleman says, “to appreciate things. Staying humble, always thanking God for the opportunities I have and just taking it day by day and understanding this is something earned and it’s not really just given to you."
Coleman said part of the appeal of playing at Washington – aside from its academic reputation, and, at first, the desire to learn from former running backs coach Joel Thomas, who left for Arkansas prior to the 2013 season, after Coleman committed – is its proximity to Lompoc. It’s close enough that his parents, Leander and Tracy, can still attend home games, but far enough away that he wasn’t totally enclosed within his comfort zone.
He certainly had that in Lompoc, a city of about 43,000 located three hours northwest of Los Angeles and about an hour from Santa Barbara.
In Lompoc, Coleman had an ideal core friend group – “Maurice, Keith and A-Rod,” a “weird” kind of crew featuring dudes with “different lingos and feng shuis” – and he was worried that if he went to school in Los Angeles, he would have a hard time telling his friends he didn’t have time to hang out.
“It was safe,” Coleman said. “Didn’t have to worry about anything. Just had to go to school and play football. Small community – you knew everybody, everybody knew you.”
Lavon and Leander were on their own until Lavon was about 4 years old, Leander said. That’s when he met Tracy, who became Lavon’s mom.
Leaving home wasn’t easy, Lavon said, “because you don’t want to leave moms. That’s one of the things. But at the same time, she understood this is a choice I’m going to make and this is where I’m going to play college football at, and this is where I’m going to get my education from. When she read up on it, she had no worries about it. So it was OK with her.”
Huskies coach Chris Petersen recruited him at Boise State, too, and that was one of the few other schools Coleman considered.
But one visit to Montlake sealed his decision.
“It’s a beautiful campus,” Leander said. “The teachers, the program that they have. It really captured us.”
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Mickens, a junior, could see that Coleman was frustrated early in his redshirt season in 2013. He worked with the scout team, and was adjusting to a football life in which he couldn’t run past everybody like he did in high school.
“But now he’s letting the game come to him,” Mickens said. “He’s the most patient runner I’ve seen since Bishop.”
And he’s just as deferential to his teammates on the offensive line. Ask Coleman about his on-field exploits, and the response will redirect to the guys up front, Coleman insisting the only reason he was able to run at all was because of the holes created by the linemen in front of him.
“He’s definitely a blue-collar kind of guy, you could say,” Riva said. “Very upbeat. I don’t want to say other running backs are into themselves, but he’s not a selfish guy. He’s not into himself, really. He spreads the love.”
Teammates describe him as a “happy-go-lucky” kind of guy, quick with a joke and eager to liven the room.
"He always wants to be in the front of the line. He doesn’t play the redshirt freshman role. That’s what I like about him," fifth-year senior running back Jesse Callier said. "He’s a competitor. You can always respect that as a veteran. You can respect a kid who wants to come out and eat every day and doesn’t accept being a redshirt freshman. Lavon’s a big kid. I’m excited to see what type of things he can do for us this year."
“Hardly ever hear that guy complain or anything like that,” senior center Colin Tanigawa said. “He’s just a great guy. Definitely like blocking for him, because he’s a tough runner.”
“He’s a character,” Leander said. “That’s for sure.”
Leander is eager to see how Lavon evolves in college. But he can already see that his son’s personality reflects the lessons he learned in Lompoc.
“It’s always a pleasure to have a child that you know will be willing to help humanity,” Leander said, “and sometimes you can help humanity by entertainment, by showing a great will, and being very, very humble.”
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple