April 21, 2006
By Noah Cohan
gohuskies.com contributing writer
When a college football team graduates its leading rusher, that's usually cause for some concern. For the 2006 Washington Huskies, however, there is less concern than excitement surrounding the running back position.
It's not as though James Sims, the aforementioned departing ground-gainer, won't be missed. Much to the contrary, Sims will be missed not only because of his toughness between the tackles, but also for his infectious sense of humor and his prodigious video production skills (featured extensively in the Spring Football Central portion of gohuskies.com).
It's just that the Huskies return a trio of running backs who are so distinct, yet so uniquely tantalizing in their skills, that each would make excellent movie material for Sims, should Hollywood accompany the NFL on his career itinerary. Here's how this humble gohuskies.com scriptwriter might cast them:
Being a fifth-year senior, it's clear that Kenny James has a lot of wisdom. It's just that up until now the Dos Palos, Calif., native hasn't always felt it was his place to share it. But coming off an injury-hampered junior year, James wants to make sure he gets the most out of his last gridiron campaign as a Dawg.
"This is my last go around," said James, "So I have to step up and take the leadership role. I have to make sure everybody's going out there with one thing on their mind, and that's getting better.
"Sometimes the coaches say `work on the little things,' but there are no little things when it comes to playing this sport. Everything that you do is big, and everything can have an effect on the team."
The details are important to the Huskies' active leader in career rushing yards, because he knows how quickly things can change if the utmost care isn't taken. After rushing for 702 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore, a shoulder ailment kept James out of the backfield for much of last season, limiting him to 103 yards and one touchdown. This season he is determined not to be held back.
"I just want to go out with a bang," said James. "I'm going to do whatever I have to do. I'm going to work out hard during the offseason, come into fall camp ready to go, and then do my part on Saturdays. If I'm called to do a little extra, so be it. I just want to go out with a bang and have fun this season."
James also has an important lesson for younger players who might be hesitant to share their knowledge.
"The younger guys, I want them to know that they don't have to wait until they're seniors to be leaders," he said. "They can do it now. They can become a leader and step up to that challenge."
Louis Rankin started the first seven games of the 2005 season for Washington, along the way showing the kind of potential that Husky fans dream about. Rankin rushed for 485 yards on 104 carries (a 4.7-yard average), with three 100-yard performances (112 yards vs. Air Force, 115 yards vs. Idaho and 109 yards at UCLA).
Unfortunately for Rankin, a toe injury ended his season prematurely and during his time on the field, he was able to score only once. Churning out yards without reaching paydirt can be frustrating for a football player, but for Rankin the biggest concern was, and always will be, Ws, not TDs.
"I just want to win games," Rankin said. "Of course it's always good to score touchdowns, but if we win games I'm not going to be too worried about it."
In order to do that, the junior has focused on getting the most out of Spring Football.
"The spring has gone well," Rankin said. "I feel like we've accomplished a lot of things that we might not have done last year at this time. So I'm pretty happy with how things are going right now. We're going out there with a lot of intensity, working hard."
J.R. Hasty may have a famous father (former NFL All-Pro James Hasty) and an impressive prep pedigree (an EA sports All-American, Bellevue High School went 51-2 in his four years), but he wasn't given special treatment when he arrived on Montlake last fall. Head coach Tyrone Willingham, though often laudatory in his remarks on Hasty, chose to redshirt the Bellevue native.
Although he didn't see the field, Hasty made the most of the action he saw on the scout team. He earned the Bob Jarvis Offensive Scout Squad Player of the Year honors after the season. After all that training, however, Hasty admits he is eager to see some game action.
"The spring's been going well. It's been everything I expected it to be... But I'm really ready (to play in the games). I feel like I've waited a long time. I just want to go out there, do my thing and impress the coaches. I want to gain their trust so they can put me on the field."
Hasty gave the coaches reason to trust that he can gain yards in Washington's first scrimmage of the spring, picking up 78 yards on just 12 carries, including a 43-yard scamper down the left sideline. Though playing time is up for grabs, Hasty has nothing but good things to say about his elders in the backfield.
"Louis, he'll break outside of you really easily," said Hasty. "If he feels a lot of pressure he can bounce out, and if the defense doesn't keep containment, then they're in big trouble. And Kenny, you'd better not think he's going to run out of bounds or something, because he's not going to do that. He'll lower his shoulder and give you a nice little pop. So that's a really nice dynamic.
"Kenny's also really focused in on that leadership role. He's trying to do what he does, but also help the other guys by coming around the locker room and motivating everybody. He really loves Husky football, so he's trying to do his part for the other guys."
So the roles of the Veteran, the Up-and-Comer and the Apprentice will each be filled by talented Husky running backs. But what does the director, Husky Head Coach Tyrone Willingham, have to say about who will be the star in the backfield?
"It's been very positive, having those three guys at our running back position," Willingham said. "There was great anticipation that one guy might just take the position over, but I think the three guys have competed very well and made it very difficult for one guy just to kind of snatch it away.
"Kenny James has been impressive. He's been very solid in his performance the entire spring, especially coming back off of the shoulder injury that he had last year that may have been a little bit more (severe) than I thought it was.
"Louis Rankin is still providing some really big plays for us. Two of his first three ball games last year, he went for over 100 yards. He did some really nice things. He's working hard this year to show that he's an improved inside runner.
"J.R. Hasty came in highly touted, and he's done some great things in some of the practice sessions."
From the sound of it, each guy will have a chance to shine in 2006. But Willingham emphasizes that running skills alone will not put any of them on the marquee.
"We're looking for that entire group to be consistent in their play," said Willingham. "Playing running back is not just running the football. That would be a very easy portion of it for all of these guys. It's being involved in the blocking scheme and understanding how all of it fits together."
However it fits together, Dawg fans can be sure that no matter which Husky is anchoring the backfield on a given play, be it "the Veteran" Kenny James, "the Up-and Comer" Louis Rankin, or "the Apprentice" J.R. Hasty, for him it will be the role of a lifetime.