Redshirt freshman running back Richard Newton has quickly become a vital piece of Washington’s offense.
Going back to high school, Newton’s coaches have all described him as a violent runner — and he’s lived up to the term. He’s a bruising power back, the perfect complement to fellow running backs Salvon Ahmed and Sean McGrew. To put it simply, Newton runs through people. It’s why he’s been such a reliable option in the red zone.
It’s also why Husky fans held their breath when he went down on the field during the loss to Stanford.
But the injury might not be as bad as it initially appeared when Newton didn’t put any weight on his leg as he was helped off the field in the third quarter last week. After the game, head coach Chris Petersen said it was a foot injury, not a knee.
On Monday, Petersen said Newton was seeing a specialist and the outcome “might be better” than he thought. Petersen gave another update on Thursday, and it was a promising one: Newton won’t need surgery. He’s currently rehabbing and is considered “week-to-week.”
Before the injury, Newton was leading UW with 64 yards on 10 carries against Stanford. On the season, he has 329 yards and six touchdowns on 64 attempts. He also has a receiving touchdown.
The Huskies have been rotating running backs all season. Ahmed, the starter, is leading the way with 437 yards and three touchdowns on 67 carries. He’s averaging 6.4 yards per carry and rushed for a career-high 153 yards in the victory over USC. McGrew, who also set a career-high with 110 yards against BYU, has rushed for 229 yards and a touchdown on 38 carries. All three backs are averaging more than 5 yards per carry.
On Thursday, Petersen was asked if sharing the load was an issue for any of the running backs. He grinned in response.
“I think all of those guys have done a nice job,” he said. “I don’t see a problem there, do you? … I think if we thought it was an issue, we’d probably change it. It’s been working good, that luxury of having four pretty good guys in the mix. Now one is down for a little bit, so we got three other guys, and we roll.”
Petersen was presumably referencing Kamari Pleasant — he’s rushed for 14 yards on seven carries and has primarily been used as a blocker — as the fourth running back. But Malik Braxton also has two carries for 43 yards.
But since it appears Newton has been ruled out against Arizona, the Huskies will be mostly leaning on Ahmed and McGrew. Looking back on the loss to Stanford, Petersen said the Huskies probably should’ve run the ball more. While the passing game was struggling, UW was having some success on the ground.
Throughout the week, Petersen and his staff talked about playing to the offense’s strengths. And right now, that seems to be the run game.
“You’d like to think we can run the ball a little bit,” Petersen said when asked how he would define the offense moving forward. “We’ve got to get the pass game going a little bit more.”
Arizona on the ground
The Wildcats also have more than one running back making an impact, and that could spell trouble for a UW defense that’s been struggling against the run. The Huskies are allowing 146 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth in the Pac-12.
Arizona has three players that have rushed for more than 200 yards this season, and one of them is quarterback Khalil Tate, who has rushed for 290 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. Running back Gary Brightwell has 295 yards and four touchdowns on 44 carries while J.J. Taylor has rushed for 217 yards and two touchdowns on 35 attempts. All three are averaging more than 5.9 yards per carry.
The Wildcats are averaging 221 rushing yards per game, which is second in the Pac-12 behind Utah’s 223.4.
“That spread offense where they spread you out, there’s creases and they’re really good runners,” Petersen said. “They’ve got three or four guys, and J.J. Taylor is exceptional. He’s a different-type back that you don’t see a lot in terms of one cut and away he goes.”
After not playing against UCLA due to injury, Taylor returned for the Wildcats’ win over Colorado last week but only played one series. Afterward, head coach Kevin Sumlin said he was “fine” but he “didn’t want to risk it too much.”
A 2018 All-Pac-12 first team selection and third-team AP All-American, Taylor’s best game this season was a 102-yard performance against Northern Arizona. He rushed for more than 100 yards five times last season, including 264 yards against Oregon State and 212 yards against Oregon.
“You’re defending scheme,” Petersen said of the Arizona’s running backs. “You’ve got to go back to what you guys were talking about, the fundamental football of being able to tackle.
“That’s the hard thing in that scheme because a lot of times you get people there, but they are good players and they can make a guy miss and then all of the sudden it’s a big play. They’ll get guys there, and that’s part of the beauty of their scheme, is creating space and letting their athletes go.”