WSU Cougars

For WSU, 2017 could be the year of the ... running back?

Washington State running back Jamal Morrow (25) runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Montana State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Washington State won 31-0.
Washington State running back Jamal Morrow (25) runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Montana State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Washington State won 31-0. AP

When you exit the stairwell on the fifth floor of Washington State’s football operations building, hang a quick right and follow the wide, carpeted hallway until you reach a dead end. It’s the last room on the right.

There’s a placard on the door that reads “running backs.” You enter to find Jim Mastro holding court – he stands in front of a large projector screen and all six of his pupils are sitting in desks with pens and notepads. They’re listening. They’re learning.

It’s a Wednesday, just past 2:30 p.m., and the Cougar tailbacks are deep in film study, toggling from one play to the next and correcting mistakes from the previous day’s practice.

You can’t help but wonder: when the school erected this 75,000 square foot athletic palace, was the running backs room purposefully tucked into the deepest corner – possibly to signify the position’s rank within Mike Leach’s pass-heavy offense?

Not likely, but back to the meeting room. Mastro, the longtime running backs guru has been at WSU since Leach arrived in 2012 and he’s been molding tailbacks for almost three decades. A positive vibe emanates from this room and the players would testify on their coach’s behalf: Mastro’s lectures easily beat the ones they get all day long from professors in overcrowded auditoriums.

“You actually want to come in there and learn,” said redshirt junior Keith Harrington. “Hands down, I think we have the best meeting room.”

Harrington is one of the six. He sits in the middle of the second row, with two freshmen – Caleb Perry and Clark Markoff – flanking him on either side.

Harrington and the three players sitting up front are the ones who’ve breathed life into the run game at Washington State. Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams made up the most productive backfield in the Pac-12 last season. Don’t call the Cougars one-dimensional.

“If you add up the yards,” Leach said during Pac-12 media days last month, “we had the most productive backs in the league. I think it went us, Oregon, Stanford. That’s good company right there.”

The backfield accounted for 1,641 yards on the ground and another 1,035 in the air, for 2,676 total yards from the line of scrimmage. Morrow, Williams and Wicks were responsible for 29 touchdowns in 2016. That trio is back this season and now so is Harrington after a yearlong trial at wide receiver.

So, the problem Mastro faces is the same one a foodie runs into at a dinner buffet in Las Vegas: too many good choices.

“You can win with all four of them,” he said, “so we’re in good shape.”

Leach’s patented Air Raid should be as strong as ever, but the quartet in the backfield could make a case that 2017 is the year of the … running back?

DIFFERENT GENRES

Mastro’s big challenge this season is getting all of the Cougar backs onto the field. Each is different and it’s plausible that Morrow, Williams and Wicks could all carve out a role in this prolific offense.

All of them shined in WSU’s opening win over Montana State. Williams had the biggest day – 13 receptions for 163 yards and another 45 yards rushing. Morrow rushed for 89 yards, and Wicks contributed 23 yards rushing and 29 yards receiving.

Morrow is the steady senior. The 5-9, 203-pound, native of Menifee, California, rushed 90 times for 583 yards and five touchdowns last year. And you have to account for him in the passing game. Last year, Morrow reeled in 48 passes for 488 yards and five touchdowns.

He’s the first back listed on the week one depth chart, but that’s of little significance.

“Like (Mastro) always says, the depth chart’s written in dirt,” Morrow said.

Williams is a redshirt sophomore who possesses breakneck speed and is one of the most elusive players in the Pac-12. Nicknamed “Boobie,” the 5-11, 196-pounder from Burbank, California, had .37 missed tackles per touch last season, more than any other returning running back in the FBS.

“He plays the game so fast. … He can make bad things look good in a hurry,” Mastro said. “James has some mental lapses at times that kind of keep him with the pack,” suggesting that perhaps Williams would break away from the others without those lapses.

Wicks is the one you want on the goal line, or in on a fourth-and-short scenario. The 6-foot, 220-pound senior is a bruiser and will invite big hits, rather than elude them. He was third in the rushing last year with 478 yards, but had a team-high 11 touchdowns.

“I love contact,” Wicks said. “I love when a linebacker comes one on one – him versus me, who’s going to win?”

In 2016, Williams was the only WSU back with more than 100 carries, but Morrow and Wicks weren’t far behind, with 90 and 88. Most wouldn’t envy the position Mastro’s in right now – it’s likely someone will be left out – but the depth should keep any of the running backs from burning out in a given game.

“Like I’ve always said, James Williams tired isn’t better than Jamal Morrow,” Mastro said. “So now if we can keep those guys fresh throughout a game, then we can keep our fresh players in there because they can all do everything pretty well.”

30 MINUTES ON THE FIFTH FLOOR

On this midday summit inside the Cougar Football Complex, Mastro hits on the generalities that apply to any meeting room in the country: practice with pace, finish the play, maintain good pad level, etc. Then tips specific to the running backs: time your cuts well, keep your feet moving and, most importantly in Mastro’s chamber, make the first person miss.

The chalk talk continues. A few of the WSU schemes, Mastro thinks, could lead to some big gainers against the first two opponents, Montana State and Boise State. They cover those.

Later, they’re watching a play where Wicks is caught in a defensive scrum. One of the tacklers steps on his toe, pinning one foot to the ground while the other slides forward.

“It looks like you’re going to the disco,” Mastro jokes. “You guys are too young, you ever watch Saturday Night Fever? With John Travolta? That was his patented move right there.”

It’s a rare dynamic here – the one between coach and player, professor and pupil. But there’s proven success – 2,676 yards worth of it.

PEAS IN A POD

At the end of the 30-minute gathering, the running backs begin to pack up. Something has them laughing hysterically.

“You should write about James’ ear?” one quips.

A few years back, Williams’ earring ripped out during a football game. He applied rubbing alcohol, but the treatment caused a deformation and made his right ear lobe grow larger. Williams isn’t self-conscious – he says it’ll be removed eventually – and the jabs don’t bother him.

But the ear has given his teammates plenty of good material.

“I believe it was Gerard in a meeting,” Harrington recalled. “He said something like, ‘Coach, who’s the sixth person in here?’ And we all looked around and we were like, ‘There’s only five of us in here.’ And then he was like, ‘James’ ear.’ … Ever since then, it’s been an inside go-to joke.”

This isn’t so much about a right ear, though, as it is about the camaraderie between four teammates who are unequivocally each other’s top supporters between the white lines. They razz Williams, but they’re also the most vocal when their position mate bounces out of a tackle to break off one of his signature runs.

“Every single time I see him hit that corner it’s like, he gone. He gone,” Morrow said. “Go Boobie, go!”

Added Williams: “I always keep saying it, everybody thinks we go at each other’s throats and it’s not like that at all,” he said. “It’s like a chain reaction. We all want each other to be successful.”

That’s the culture Mastro established in his room years ago. Wicks and Morrow, the elder statesmen of this group, were responsible for pushing the message forward.

“They kind of adjoined at the hip,” Mastro said. “They were brought in here to turn this program around and they did that, so I think they have that special bond. And then as the young guys came in, Keith and James, they kind of took them under their wings and said, ‘This is how we do things here.’”

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