August 7, 2008

Running Backs Young but Talented - Sound Familiar?

There is a reoccurring theme with the Washington Huskies this season - young, and the running backs are no different. The "veteran" on the squad is true sophomore Brandon Johnson, who finished last season with 51 carries for 196 yards and two touchdowns. However, it may not even be Johnson who starts the season opener against Oregon. Johnson is still recovering from a PCL and torn meniscus injury. The PCL injury is a lingering one from high school, while Johnson tore his meniscus in the spring. Johnson had surgery to repair both injuries.

"I was kind of nervous going into a knee surgery, but I just looked at it as it has to get done, so I've got to do what I've got to do to work though it," said Johnson. "It's been a little sore, but I'm trying to work through it - get through it. It's nothing, I'm fine. I don't know when I'll be 100 percent. You've just got to go off of it day-to-day. Hopefully I'm 100 percent by the end of camp, because the more and more I'm cutting on it, I'm getting some pain. I'm getting used to it, so I'll be fine."

Last season, Johnson played behind graduated senior Louis Rankin, who became the first Husky to rush for 1,000-yards since Rashaan Shehee did it in 1997. Rankin finished the season with 1,294 yards and his career with 2,480 yards - good for the fifth highest single season and seventh highest career rushing total in Washington history. Johnson feels he learned much from the departed Husky.

"Louis told me a lot of stuff about confidence really more than on the field. He taught me how to prepare for games. He would teach me stuff about blocking, how to read holes, what to look for when I'm on the field," explained Johnson. "Even today, I'll still be out there and say 'Louis told me to look for this' - I'll look for it, and it'll be there. I respect him a lot for that."

Aside from sophomore Curtis Shaw, who had seven carries last season but has since been moved permanently to wide receiver, Johnson finds himself as the only returning running back with a collegiate carry. With that in mind, Johnson has taken it upon himself to take a leadership role amongst the running backs.

"It really doesn't sink in until one of the younger guys come at you and asks you a question, and you say 'I remember being in this same situation last year', but I think it's pretty cool," expressed Johnson. "I try my best to help them out as much as I can, because I want to see everybody be successful. As an older guy, you need to tell them the right things to do, because you never know when you may get hurt. If somebody else has to come in, I want them to do the best they can. I just try my best to stay focused and help them out as best I can."

If anyone is going to take the starting spot from Johnson this fall, it will likely be true freshman Chris Polk. Polk, who was recruited as a wide receiver/running back hybrid, registered early and had the opportunity to participate in spring ball - something he believes benefitted him.

"A little," responded Polk when asked if his early enrollment has put him a step ahead of the other true freshman running backs. "I don't have to read the playbook and study the plays like the freshman right now, because I already know them for both receiver and running back. It's real good that I came in, so I wouldn't be struggling to learn the plays real quick."

It is still uncertain whether Polk will play running back or wide receiver for the Huskies, though it looks more and more like running back as the season nears - the position Polk prefers.

"I like playing tailback because I only played receiver two years of my life. I'm a natural running back, so I'm happy with the adjustment," explained Polk. "Receiver - there's still things I have to think about. Running back - it just come natural, I don't have to think about anything, I just react."

Even if he does stay at the running back position, Polk expects the coaching staff to utilize his catching ability.

"They haven't told me anything. They tell me to keep doing what you're doing, and continue to do good. They said that they'll move me between the two when we get into next week," explained Polk. "I think they'll work that into the offense some way, because they know me on the corner catching a swing pass would be good. I have real good hands, I'm just short."

True freshman Johri Fogerson may end up playing safety before it's all said and done, but he is being given a shot at running back to begin with, a position he has excelled at. Fogerson had an outstanding senior season for O'Dea High School, rushing for 2,545 yards and 36 touchdowns en route to earning the AP state player of the year award for all classifications. It should come as no surprise that Fogerson's adjustment to the college game has gone well thus far.

"It's going good, I'm learning a lot - picking it up fast. That's what you've got to do. I'm actually picking up the game a lot faster than I thought I would. The speed is faster, but it's slowed down a lot since the first day. I'm seeing a lot of things that I wouldn't have seen on the first day," expressed Fogerson. "I feel good. I feel comfortable with where I am, with the playbook, with the game speed, with the people that I'm playing with. Right now it's just a learning phase - I'm sitting back, taking it all in."

According to Fogerson, the Husky coaches haven't approached him about playing on the defensive side of ball.

"There haven't been any talks about me switching right now. I'm just playing right now, loving where I'm at right now. If they do choose to switch me to defense - if that's what I've got to do to help the team, I'll do it," explained Fogerson. "I can help out at both positions. I'm great at both positions. I'm equal as they say."

First year Running Backs Coach Steve Gervais joined the Huskies after leading Skyline High School to the Washington 3A state championship last season. Gervais took over as the Skyline Head Coach in 1998, and in 2000, won the school's first state championship in only it's fourth year of existence. Gervais captured Skyline's second state championship in 2005, but in the 4A classification. Gervais also won three 1A state titles with Eatonville in 1985, 90 and 92. In 2005, Gervais was inducted into the Washington State High School Football Coach's Hall of Fame. The transition from high school football to the college ranks has been relatively easy for Gervais thus far.

"The transition has been really easy. It's easy to fit in and work with these coaches," explained Gervais. "I'd say the biggest thing is I get to focus on coaching football and working with the group of kids that I'm responsible with - running backs. That's a real pleasure. They're great kids, and I get them fired up to go - it's been good."

Gervais had the opportunity to coach against Fogerson last season on the biggest stage in high school football. As I mentioned earlier, Gervais led the Spartans to the 3A state championship last season. Who did they face? You guessed it, the Fighting Irish of O'Dea. Fogerson had an outstanding game in the close 35-42 loss, rushing for a 3A championship game record 297 yards. While Fogerson gave him headaches in his final high school game, Gervais is enjoying the opportunity to coach the young athlete.

"Johri has done a very nice job. He's very athletic, he has great balance and great vision. I think he's a great running back, there's no doubt about it. He finished last year with a bang in high school. His first couple of days of evaluating, he's running the ball very well," expressed Gervais. "We've talked about it a lot in the past. We are both at the point where we're getting ready to play. He wants to play - he's a great competitor. It was fun having coached against him and get to see him, and now actually coaching him."

The running backs may be young, but the fullbacks are seasoned. Both of Washington's fullbacks from last season return in junior Paul Homer and senior Luke Kravitz. Homer is currently listed as the first-team fullback and should retain that position throughout fall practices and into the season. Homer has taken a leadership role to heart, and is excited at the opportunity to contribute this season.

"The older guys usually take the leadership positions - me and Luke have done that," explained Homer. "I think that last year was a good example of what I'm going to be doing this year. My role could expand, we'll see as we go through camp more. They might try to use me more in the running game, and I'm always hoping they'll throw me the ball, but we'll see."

Gervais had great things to say about his group of fullbacks.

"[db]Paul Homer of course is the veteran of the group. I guess Luke Kravitz is the veteran, being the fifth year guy, but Paul is the starter, and all of the guys know it. He's a very phsyical kid and a very smart kid. Luke is backing him up. Both of those kids - you couldn't ask for better leaders, especially having all of the young kids in the backfield," expressed Gervais. "They lead by example, and they know where everybody is supposed to be every play. They're both a pleasure to coach. Austin Sylvester the third fullback, is going to be very similar to Paul in the years ahead. He's a very physical kid, good kid - does a really nice job."

Gervais further discussed Homer's role with the team.

"I think there will be times where we use Paul in the backfield in a spread situation," explained Gervais. "He can run the ball effectively, certainly on the inside. He's not necessarily a perimeter type guy, but he adds a real dimension to the game, and he's a tough ball carrier."

Terrance Dailey and David Freeman join Fogerson as the true freshman running backs on campus, and Gervais touched on the young trio.

"David Freeman has great quickness, and Terrance Daily can also run like the other two kids. All three of them are very nice additions to the program," said Gervais. "We've just got to continue the evaluation process. They don't get a lot of reps. They did yesterday in split practice, but we're trying to get them as many reps as we can, to watch them and see what they do."

Two others to watch, are redshirt freshmen Brandon Yakaboski and Willie Griffin. Demitrius Bronson is not currently on campus, as he has not qualified academically.

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