University of Washington

Return of the ’3-headed monster?’ Huskies working to find right combination at running back

Chris Petersen speaks to the media after fall camp

Washington head coach Chris Petersen speaks to the media after fall practice.
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Washington head coach Chris Petersen speaks to the media after fall practice.

Chris Petersen first used the term after Washington’s win over Colorado last season: Three-headed monster.

It was his way of describing the combination of Salvon Ahmed, Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant that filled in admirably when starting running back Myles Gaskin was sidelined with an injury. The trio combined for 166 yards in that victory, with Ahmed leading the way with 73. It was just the kind of stat line that could become commonplace for the Huskies this season.

So it wasn’t surprising that Ahmed, who appears set to take over as UW’s feature back, echoed his head coach’s terminology after fall practice last week. All three running backs have their particular style, Ahmed said, and that makes for a dangerous mix.

“You can take (any) one of us out there and we’re going to bring something,” Ahmed said. “I’m happy I get to have those guys with me in the backfield. Every down, either back could be in. I’m excited to see Sean and Kamari go.”

While the performance against Colorado might have provided a glimpse of the future, Petersen is hoping to get even more out of the group this season. And, Petersen added, freshman Cameron Davis and redshirt freshman Richard Newton have only raised the level of competition. Newton, in particular, showed promising flashes during the first five practices of fall camp.

Toward the end of Tuesday’s practice — the last one open to the media — Ahmed broke free for the biggest run of the fall. After dodging defenders, he turned the corner and took off up the sideline for a gain of about 30 yards.

When Ahmed is on the field, that’s what he brings: Speed and elusiveness. Asked to describe McGrew, Ahmed settled on explosive as his adjective of choice. And while Pleasant has that ability, too, Ahmed said he mostly gives the Huskies more of a power back.

“I think it’s best to have the best of both worlds,” said Ahmed, who rushed for 608 yards and seven touchdowns on 104 carries last season, “so I think those guys are due for a big season.”

Petersen, though, isn’t necessarily focused on style.

“I just want fast, breaking tackles, falling forward,” Petersen said. “Everybody has a little bit of a different style but it really makes no difference. Sometimes maybe a bigger back for some short-yardage situations where you’re going to have to push some piles a little bit and inches will it really matter. But style is kind of irrelevant really when you’re analyzing that.”

If Petersen is sure of one thing, it’s this: No one player can carry the weight alone. Not even Gaskin, who averaged 18.2 carries per game over his four-year career including 21.6 carries per game last season. But Petersen isn’t necessarily committed to putting the three-headed monster back on the field. Not if a two-headed monster gets better results.

“We’re not just going to play three guys to play three guys,” Petersen said Sunday. “It’s got to be three guys deserve it or we’ll play two guys if that’s what it takes. We’ll play one guy a lot more and spell. We’re saying we put three guys in because we think we can win with that.”

The talent at running back has turned the position battle into one of Petersen’s favorite competitions of the fall. While Petersen admitted Ahmed’s experience gives him an advantage to become UW’s starter, there are several other players in the mix.

And because running back is such a difficult position to evaluate in practice, the competition is never really finished.

“You got to see what they’re able to do in scrimmages, which there’s not going to be a bunch of scrimmages so we come to the games,” Petersen said. “So some guys just have to keep chipping away and be ready for their time. And when it’s their time to go, they got to break tackles and fall forward. Those are the things we’re looking for.”