University of Washington

UW running backs complement each other on and off the field

Washington running backs coach Keith Bhonapha can tell you something about every player in his room.

Leading rusher Salvon Ahmed is a music enthusiast who appreciates sarcasm — but only when he’s dishing it out. Sean McGrew is as quick with a verbal jab as he is with his feet. In other words? “He has a smart mouth.” Redshirt freshman Richard Newton takes football seriously, but he’s still a kid. Away from practice and the meeting room, he’s more likely to show a silly side.

Kamari Pleasant is a constant surprise. Lone senior Malik Braxton is the elder statesman, “like a grandfather.” As for the two true freshmen, Bhonapha joked that Camden Verstrate and Cameron Davis are still trying to figure out how they ended up at UW at all.

Perhaps some of the other position groups would disagree, but McGrew said the running backs room is one of the funniest on the team. They complement each other as well off the field as they do on it, and Bhonapha knows that isn’t always the case.

“I will say I’m fortunate with this group is they all come to work every day,” Bhonapha said. “They never complain. They do a great job of helping each other out even if they aren’t out there.”

While five different backs have had at least one carry in the first three games, it’s become clear that Ahmed, McGrew and Newton will make up the Huskies’ core rotation this season.

Ahmed is the leading rusher with 253 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries. Newton has 20 attempts for 162 yards and four touchdowns while McGrew has 15 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown. All three are averaging more than 5.5 yards per carry, and none of them have any problem sharing the spotlight.

“We all love each other,” McGrew said. “We’re all each other’s biggest supporters. Doesn’t matter who’s out there, we’re all on the sideline extremely excited when someone gets a big run or whatever. We’re all jumping up and down. We’re the first ones to celebrate with our guys.

“I think having that type of atmosphere and that type of people in the room is just awesome. Most other schools probably have some type of jealousy or whatever, like, ‘Oh, I should get more carries’ and this and that. Some guys aren’t close to each other. As a group, we just want to be the best running back unit in the country.”

The balance was never more evident than during Saturday’s game against Hawaii. Ahmed, McGrew and Newton each got eight carries in the 52-20 victory.

“We feel like we got some good players back there that are all a little bit different,” coach Chris Petersen said. “I said it after the game, too, I think Keith Bhonapha does a good job ... of kind of mixing those guys in and we’re going to need those guys. There’s no question. They carried the ball eight times, but I think there’s a couple of them that feel like it’s more than eight times in terms of just getting pounded a little bit and those types of things.”

Ahmed showcased his speed, bursting through a hole in the second quarter for a 42-yard gain. He finished with a team-high 83 yards. The shifty and elusive McGrew finished with 63 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Newton, a power back described by both his college and high school coaches as a violent runner, has carved out a role for himself in the red zone. He scored three touchdowns from inside 10 yards and continues to be featured in the wildcat.

“You just get a feel with how the flow of the game is going,” Bhonapha said of using multiple backs. “Just depends on the flow of the game. Obviously, you have different situations that you want to get guys in. … Rich had his stuff going in the red zone. Sean was doing some great stuff in the open field. If guys are out there and successful with their carries and making things happen then they’re going to get more plays.”

Running back rotations don’t always work this well, and it’s not often they come with such a lack of contention. Bhonapha barely let the question finish before he shook his head, chuckled and offered an emphatic, “No.” It’s never a given, he said, that a group of players will be amicable to splitting carries.

“Especially not with running backs,” he said. “There’s only one ball to hand off. Obviously, we got some talented guys in the room, which is a lot of fun. I try to foster a room of just great relationships where we can have fun and cheer for each other and enjoy, where it’s even if I’m not on the field I know the work that’s been put in. Whoever is out there and successful, they cheer for each other. So it’s a lot of fun. I’m fortunate to have the group I have.”

Said McGrew: “It’s never about me, it’s always about the team and our unit. That’s what we pride ourselves on and that’s what we go into every day thinking.”

Former running back Myles Gaskin averaged 18.2 carries per game during his four-year career, including 21.6 carries as a senior in 2018. But, while Bhonapha will feed the hot hand — Ahmed had 21 carries for 119 yards against Cal — UW seems more likely to spread the ball out this season.

And even though he was the clear feature back during his time with the Huskies, Gaskin still set the right tone.

“He never complained about coming out,” Bhonapha said. “He was never like, ‘I need these plays in the game plan’ or things like that. He just kind of kept his head down and I think when you have a guy that was such a dominant player that was in the room with Rich, in the room with Sean, in the room with Kamari (Pleasant) and Salvon … that just bled off into the culture of the room.”

McGrew said the group’s personality has been the same since he joined the program. And it doesn’t have to be taught. Bhonapha, for one, hopes that doesn’t change anytime soon.

“If we can keep that going,” he said with a laugh, “I can keep recruiting a lot of running backs.”

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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