Wicks eyes edge in running back race

Washington State running back Gerard Wicks has a combination of size and speed that could make him one of the leading ballcarriers for the Cougars this season.
Washington State running back Gerard Wicks has a combination of size and speed that could make him one of the leading ballcarriers for the Cougars this season. The Associated Press

To hear Washington State’s coaches gush about their trio of running backs, you’d think they prefer to never name a starter.

But somebody has to be on the field when the Cougars take their first snap against Portland State on Saturday, and indications from practice and WSU’s recently released depth chart suggest Gerard Wicks has fashioned a tiny bit of space between himself, Jamal Morrow and redshirt freshman Keith Harrington.

There may not be much daylight there, but it’s enough for Wicks to run through. Each of WSU’s three running backs brings a different dominant skill set, and Wicks’ specialty is initiating collisions and punishing defenders with his 6-foot, 225-pound frame.

That won’t always be what the coaches want out of the running back position, but it will be an asset in short-yardage situations and whenever the Cougars want to beat up the defense.

“It kind of depends what play we’re running,” coach Mike Leach said. “I mean, they can all do things the others can’t. The most consistent guy is probably Morrow; Wicks is explosive if he’s carrying the ball. The best receiver of them is Keith Harrington, and Harrington is the best at making people miss.”

The funny thing about Wicks is even though he’s been given the battering ram role at WSU, the coaches initially noticed him for his speed. As a high school athlete at California’s Long Beach Poly, Wicks was a key member of the track team and competed in the Junior Olympics in four events.

Leach said he prefers football players who run track in high school because they “know how to run,” although there are fewer multisport athletes than there used to be.

“He was one of the fastest guys out there, and then you could tell he was going to be a big guy,” Leach said. “Then, he was one of the feature backs at Long Beach Poly and they’ve got a lot to pick from.”

There are other reasons to think that Wicks could emerge as WSU’s feature back, but the coaches counter all of them. With his size, you ask, might he be the best equipped to absorb the pounding that comes with a heavy workload? But the coaches believe the three backs will take enough carries away from each other to keep everybody fresh.

Wicks seemed to break off the most explosive runs during spring practices and preseason camp, you could point out. Shouldn’t that indicate he has the best combination of big-play ability and short-yardage potential?

Ah, but it was Morrow who led the team in carries (87) and yards-per-rush (4.9) last year, all while setting a school record for receptions by a running back (61), the coaches will doubtlessly note.

Wicks, who led WSU with four rushing touchdowns last season, may indeed have the edge. But he didn’t always — and there are no guarantees he will keep it.

“All three will play, it’s basically a toss-up,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said.

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