University of Washington

Given opportunity to prove himself, Huskies’ running back Richard Newton wasted no time

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Moments after Richard Newton’s first collegiate carry — which quickly turned into his first collegiate touchdown — a meeting more than a thousand miles away ground to a halt.

While Newton was making his debut in Washington’s season opener, the Palmdale High School football team was in the middle of breaking down film. But then a voice interrupted the session to announce that Newton had scored. And just like that, the team — including Newton’s sophomore-age twin brothers — took a 10-minute break.

They watched the clip of Newton’s 23-yard touchdown out of the wildcat formation, and then they rewatched it and retweeted it and texted Newton congratulations. For those 10 minutes, any game preparation was pushed to the side. Everyone in the room knew how long Newton had waited for that moment.

So did his parents, who were battling their emotions as they watched from the stands at Husky Stadium. Richard Newton Sr. and Dominique Newton don’t know if anyone else noticed their son’s beaming smile as he crossed into the end zone, but they couldn’t miss it. A grin “as bright as day.”

Because of his injury struggles — a hairline fracture in his foot during his senior year of high school followed by a shoulder surgery that led to his redshirt season at UW — Newton hadn’t played football competitively in more than a year before Saturday’s game. To Dominique, the touchdown was a lesson in perseverance.

“Richard never gave up on the game,” Dominique said. “He never gave up on himself. … I don’t know if he necessarily wanted to score on his first possession but I know ultimately he wanted to be able to reach that end zone.

“He just wanted everyone to see what we all know already — that him and that field have a magnetic relationship that’s hard to explain.”

‘Richard has always been a game-changer’

Newton was 2 years old when he started begging his parents to let him play football. The oldest of five children, he was introduced to the sport early when he went with Dominique to watch Newton Sr.’s college games. After every outing, he asked the same question: “Can I play yet?”

When Newton turned 7 and could finally sign up for youth football, he didn’t believe it was real.

“From then on, Richard has always been a game-changer,” Dominique said. “Regardless of what team he’s been on from youth through high school. I don’t think it’s much of what anyone puts into him. It’s already in there.”

Newton scored six touchdowns during his first season of youth football. Five years in, Newton Sr. knew he would be a solid player for a local high school. Then Newton started playing at Palmdale, and his father realized the ceiling was much higher.

“He’s just always had a passion,” Newton Sr. said. “I told the coaches this before, he’s probably not the best running back but he is the best football player I ever got the chance to watch and coach.”

Palmdale head coach Eric Nickols probably wouldn’t disagree. Newton’s high school career was derailed early when he broke his arm as a freshman. But when he returned, he immediately impressed the defensive coaches with his physical play at safety.

On offense, Newton first found a home at slot receiver. But during Week 4 of his sophomore season, Palmdale went out in a power running formation. The ball was tossed to Newton, who took off downhill between the tackles. Then it happened again. And again. When Nickols looked at his coaches, they all came to the same realization: “That’s the answer to who’s going to play tailback for us the rest of the year.”

Coming out of high school, Newton was a three-star prospect considered by 247Sports to be the No. 24 running back in the Class of 2018, Newton finished his career at Palmdale with 2,518 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns on 333 attempts, an average of 7.6 yards per carry.

And there didn’t seem to be a limit to what Newton could do. Or if there was, Nickols never found it. Newton could play safety. He could line up at receiver. He could dominate as a running back or even take snaps at quarterback. He even saw some time at linebacker on a night Palmdale was short on personnel. All he did, Nickols said, was finish with about 17 tackles.

Newton was so physical that the coaches often asked him to hold back during drills at practice. Every time his teammates attempted to tackle him, they seemed to end up injured. Palmdale’s team was small in numbers, and Newton would just tear them up.

“We always tell our kids, ‘Hey, if you want to be a D-I athlete, you need to dominate a high school game. That’s what they’re looking for,’” Nickols said. “When you got a couple thousand people in the stands, if they don’t walk out saying, ‘That’s the guy’ then you’re probably not that guy. And many times, on both side of the ball, he just wowed everyone.”

Just ask UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha. The Huskies were one of the first teams to offer Newton, and they stuck by him even after he sustained an injury his senior year.

“I think the thing when you watch him on film is how explosive and violent he was,” Bhonapha said, “and just the way he played the game on both sides at running back and at linebacker. It was play after play after play. … Obviously, for us, we’re trying to get guys that are physical, guys that like to run the ball and guys who understand football. He fit that mold for us.”

For as good as Newton was, he was never one to brag. He’s always been soft-spoken, so quiet that his high school coaches even teased him about it. His running style — as all his coaches will tell you — is violent. But off the field, Dominique described him as mild-mannered, a nurturing older brother. When he’s home, he can often be found in his room teaching his little sisters how to play video games. This offseason, he traveled back to Palmdale to show his former teammates the workouts he’d learned at UW.

“He’s doing it right,” Nickols said. “He’s not a boastful kid. He wasn’t out here talking about I’m the best on Friday night so I don’t need tower on Monday through Thursday. That was never the case. He came to work every day and worked hard.”

‘It was heartbreaking for us’

There was a buzz around Newton when he first signed with the Huskies, but he almost forgotten after he underwent shoulder surgery and had to sit out his true freshman season. It wasn’t easy for Newton to stay away from football for so long. He tried to play through every injury he’s ever gotten, Dominique said, and it was difficult for him to hear that he couldn’t push through this time.

“It was heartbreaking for us to watch him not be able to do something he loves so much,” Newton Sr. said. “I didn’t want him to lose his faith. Obviously, at these D-I schools, everybody is good. Everybody is highly recruited and all that stuff. I didn’t want him to get discouraged and feel like he wouldn’t have the chance to prove himself out there. So when he had that opportunity, it was go-time.”

While Newton’s transition to college football was far from ideal, Bhonapha said he never complained. Instead, Newton focused on rehab. He put on some weight. And when he came back for spring practice this season, he was locked in. For all of Newton’s talent, that work ethic is what convinced Nickols he would be successful at the next level.

When he injured his foot during the third week of his senior year at Palmdale, Newton didn’t stray from the team. He was right there on the sideline, for every practice and every game, until he could get back on the field.

But when he arrived at UW, he had to start the wait all over again.

That’s why, after scoring the Huskies’ first touchdown of the season, the grin didn’t leave Newton’s face as he made his way to the sideline. “This college-football thing is kind of easy,” he told head coach Chris Petersen as he trotted by. “Can I roll out and throw a pass next time?”

“That moment was everything for him so it was everything for us,” Dominique said, “because we knew he just needed that to keep pushing through and believe that he can do that.”

Petersen isn’t quite ready to commit to expanding Newton’s repertoire — “One thing at a time,” he said after the game — but it’s probably not out of the question. Newton finished the season-opener as UW’s leading rusher with 91 yards on 12 carries. And as Bhonapha was quick to point out after the Huskies’ practice on Wednesday, he’s only a freshman.

“He takes coaching how you want him to,” Bhonapha said. “He practices like you want him to, whether it’s on the scout team, whether it’s on special teams. He’s going to be fun to be around the next four years.”

Lauren Kirschman is the UW Huskies beat writer for The News Tribune. She previously covered the Pittsburgh Steelers for A Pennsylvania native and a University of Pittsburgh graduate, she also covered college athletics for the Beaver County Times from 2012-2016.
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