The Huskies will spend the weeks leading up to their season-opener against Kent State sorting out their backfield.
Beyond the three-player competition at quarterback.
Four days into fall practices on Montlake, the Huskies have a steady rotation of running backs piling up reps on the main field at Husky Stadium during scrimmage periods.
This after the group was so thin in the spring, having graduated two seasoned contributors in Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, and missing others due to injury.
So, how does the program begin to decide who will line up with the offense when Washington plays its first snaps of the season Sept. 3?
“Grade every snap, give guys quality reps, give them the same opportunities, get them in position to make plays and see who’s making the most plays,” Huskies offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said following Saturday morning’s third practice.
Early on, four running backs — Virginia transfer Wayne Taulapapa, Nebraska transfer Will Nixon and returners Cameron Davis and Sam Adams II — have been featured most often during 11-on-11 sessions with the first- and second-team offenses.
This is the first time UW’s new coaching staff is getting extended looks at each of them.
“I think first and foremost we wanted to get the guys we hadn’t seen a lot of reps,” Huskies coach Kalen DeBoer said Sunday.
Taulapapa and Nixon both committed to UW during the first week of spring practices, then joined the Huskies in the summer, and were the first two running backs to take snaps during team periods in fall camp.
Taulapapa, a graduate transfer, brings the most experience to the group after playing in 40 games and starting 27 during his four-year career in the ACC, where he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored 19 rushing touchdowns. He was also a 3,000-plus-yard rusher in high school.
“He’s played a lot of football,” Grubb said. “They played a lot of different backs at Virginia, but he’s got a lot of reps and game experience.”
Taulapapa also brings leadership to the running backs room after spending four seasons at Virginia, and was one of the Cavaliers’ captains in 2021.
“His demeanor and how he handles his business, he’s a grown man,” Grubb said. “He’s doing a great job.”
Nixon announced his transfer to UW two days after Taulapapa following two seasons as a wide receiver at Nebraska. The redshirt freshman is listed as both a running back and wide receiver on UW’s roster, but has primarily lined up in the backfield, with his pass-catching ability a draw in the Huskies’ new offensive system.
“In this offense, that’s what our running backs do,” Grubb said. “They’re going to be utilized in the pass game. So, his ability to get out there on the edge and getting mismatches … we really feel like we can get him in the game in that.”
Davis is the Huskies’ top returning contributor at running back from last season, and has recorded carries in each of his first three seasons at UW, but did not participate in the spring due to injury. Adams, who did not appear in a game his first two seasons, was also limited in the spring.
DeBoer noted the importance of getting the running backs who did not participate in camp in April “caught up to speed on the reps they need to truly be in there and run the offense.”
“Those mental reps are important, but the reps when we’re actually on the field, those are a little different,” he said.
UW has even more options in a group that includes seven scholarship players. The coaching staff saw both transfer Aaron Dumas — who led New Mexico in rushing as a true freshman last fall, and piled up a career-best 143 yards and a touchdown against DeBoer and Fresno State — and third-year running back Jay’Veon Sunday throughout the spring.
“I told the guys like Aaron Dumas and Sunday back in May, said ‘Hey, we got to see you guys a lot.’ And now that we’re in a few practices, those guys are getting more of their reps and balancing out again,” DeBoer said.
Richard Newton is another experienced returner, entering his fifth college season, and has played in 16 games the past three seasons, but missed most of the 2021 season with a knee injury and has been limited.
As with the quarterbacks competition, UW will have to sort out its running backs situation in the weeks ahead.
Beyond the playmaking ability, Grubb also said they’re looking for “who’s available, dependable and durable.” How well the running backs can block and catch passes out of the backfield in this new offense will also factor in.
“No question,” DeBoer said. “You’ve got to be diverse, but you’ve got to do those things in particular. That’s the name of the game.”
▪ Two-time All-Pac-12 left tackle Jaxson Kirkland returned to the field Sunday after making an early exit from Saturday’s practice, and participated in positional drills, but not in scrimmage periods.
The senior is back for a sixth season at UW after initially planning to enter the 2022 NFL Draft, but later undergoing ankle surgery.
He did not participate in spring practices while waiting for clearance to return to the program from the NCAA, and the Huskies are “easing into it” with his return.
“If he’s a little bit sore in an area, we’re going to make sure we take precautions and let him work through it,” DeBoer said.
Kirkland played starting reps the first three days alongside a first-team offensive line that has also regularly included Troy Fautanu (left guard), Corey Luciano (center), Henry Bainivalu (right guard) and Roger Rosengarten (right tackle).
▪ The Huskies have an off day Monday before resuming camp Tuesday, having practiced for four consecutive days for the first time this year.
“Four good days,” DeBoer said. “Really ice cream. We haven’t had back-to-back practices ever because this spring we went every other day. So, putting back-to-back was the first challenge, then stacking three and then stacking four. I am very confident that we stacked a strong three, and today was a really solid practice.”
▪ DeBoer is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at T-Mobile Park on Monday night before the Mariners host the Yankees in the first game of a three-game series.