Aug. 10, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Just five days into preseason practice, the Huskies' "running back family" is getting tested -and by more than just losing its patriarch to the NFL.
"We have a motto: RBF. Stands for `running back family,'" says Jesse Callier, who is sharing first-team carries with Bishop Sankey in Washington's first, preseason practices in four years without All-Pac-12 rusher Chris Polk on the UW roster.
"We are out here competing for that top job, but at the end of the day we are still friends."
No more so than right now.
This "RBF" got jolted with the rest of the team on Wednesday night when coach Steve Sarkisian announced running back Deontae Cooper, one of the most respected and liked guys in Husky athletics, had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right, "good" knee and will miss the rest of this season. Cooper tore the ACL in his left knee in each of the previous two summers, missing those seasons.
"It's so sad, something so bad happening to someone so good," redshirt sophomore tailback Willis Wilson said after getting some of Cooper's work in Friday's first, full-pads practice of the preseason.
"Oh, man, Deontae, that's my guy. Pure. Point blank," redshirt freshman runner Dezden Petty said. "Since the day I got here he's helped me in meetings, helped me after practices. He's one of the best guys I know."
Cooper watched again from the sidelines in his purple, number 32 practice jersey as Callier, Sankey, Wilson, Petty, and true freshman Erich Wilson II led the offense to scores on drives late in the practice. That was after the Huskies' noticeably aggressive defense controlled the first half of the workout.
Callier, a junior who was recently named to the watch lists for the Doak Walker Award and the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player, and Sankey, a speedy sophomore, are currently 1A and 1B at tailback in the words of their coaches.
Sarkisian said this week that Petty, Gardena High School south of Los Angeles, and Wilson, from Serra High School outside San Francisco, are "going to be in the mix."
So that running game anchored primarily by Polk and his second-highest rushing total in UW history (4,049 in three seasons before leaving for the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles in April) will indeed be a "family" affair this season - even without Cooper.
"You shouldn't count these young guys out," Sankey says. "We've got a lot of young talent coming out, a lot of guys trying to prove themselves and playing with chips on their shoulders.
"Don't count the guys out that we have right now. We've got a good team, coming along."
Each day this month may bring a different lead back. Sarkisian says he will be looking to see how Callier, Sankey and the rest of the "RBF" handle being an every-down back.
Even though Polk is gone, the question isn't whether the Huskies will still run without their All-Pac-12 tailback this fall.
Even with Keith Price back after throwing for a UW-record 33 touchdowns last season, Sarkisian's offenses back to his coordinator days at USC have always been anchored by the run.
The Huskies have averaged 34.8 rushing attempts per game in Sarkisian's first three seasons calling Washington's plays. Polk set the UW career record with 799 carries thanks to Sark's philosophy of establishing the run early and late in games, no matter how well Price and Jake Locker have been winging it for Washington the last three seasons.
The only difference this season may be the multiple guys it takes to accumulate all those carries.
"There will be certain days when certain guys get the bulk of carries -- and it might be Jesse one day and Bishop the other -- to see how they can handle 20 carries a practice or 25 carries a practice, how they respond physically," Sarkisian said. "Obviously (we will test) their ability to do things right, technically, fundamentally be sound at that spot. Who can respond to the special situations in the game, who can respond to the third down to the red-zone stuff, to the 2-minute stuff to the short-yardage, goal-line things.
"I will say this about both those two kids, Jesse and Bishop: They've both been diligent in their preparation and they've got a real sense of seriousness about them, to say the least. That doesn't mean they don't have a lot of fun; they do. We all know Jesse and he's one of the most fun guys on the practice field.
"But they have the feeling that, `This is our time.'"
Two seasons ago, the speedy Callier was a fly-sweep specialist and change-up to the brutish Polk. Last season as a sophomore he showed he can run inside effectively, too.
He's also zoomed on special teams. Callier is second in total career kickoff return yards (1,309) entering the Sept. 1 opener against San Diego State. His recovery of a blocked Washington State punt for a touchdown was a key play in the Huskies' 2011 Apple Cup victory.
He sounds as driven as his running style.
"I'm not satisfied with my work. I never am," said Callier, who chose UW over Oregon and others while coming out of Downey, Calif., a couple years ago.
He gets a laugh out of those who say he is only a fly-sweep blur, that he cannot run inside, on every down or in short-yardage situations. Those are exactly the roles he filled while rushing for a California-best 3,010 yards with 43 touchdowns as a senior at Warren High.
"Honestly, I don't pay any attention to that. The media is the media. They have fun with that," Callier says of talk he can't run inside. "That's what the media is, for entertainment. I just pay attention to my coaches and to our teammates."
Sankey anticipated many more inside runs this season now that Polk is gone. So he's added 11 pounds from last season. He weighed into camp Sunday night at 203.
He was the 2010 Associated Press Washington Class 4A all-state selection and Greater Spokane League career rushing leader with 4,355 yards at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane. Then last season he was occasionally explosive as a Huskies true freshman.
"I feel like I am ready to be an all-around back," he said.
He said the biggest lesson Polk left him was to be as aggressive and ruthless on pass protection as a running back is carrying the ball. That's a surefire way to more playing time for any running back: Keeping Price from getting hit.
Friday during team scrimmaging, Price smiled at Sankey after the 5-10, 200-pound tailback stood up bullish, blitzing safety Shaq Thompson with a crunching block. That allowed his quarterback time to finish the play.
Wilson is far from the biggest member of the "RBF," at just 5-9 and 188. He's showing elusiveness like Callier showed in his first season as the outside changeup to Polk.
"I just wanted to show I could play, that I belong here. Show them that I could make plays," he said of his goals this month.
INSIDE CAMP: Hard-hitting senior Nate Fellner, converted from safety to linebacker this offseason, broke a bone in his foot during practice Thursday. Sarkisian announced Friday that Fellner is likely to miss at least four weeks, meaning he would be out for the opener plus the Sept. 8 showdown at LSU. ... LB Garret Gilliland, a junior who has started as a Husky, retired from football. "We wanted him to play. He didn't want to," Sarkisian said. "It's unfortunate." Princeton Fuimaono (hamstring) was also out Friday at linebacker. But the coach said he wasn't too worried yet about depth, thanks in part to moving Evan Zeger from safety recently. John Timu was inside with Jamaal Kearse, Scott Lawyer and others outside on the first-team defense Friday. ... The Huskies are practicing Saturday afternoon then heading downtown to watch Locker and his Tennessee Titans play the Seahawks in an NFL exhibition game. The Dawgs will be recognized in the stands by the Seahawks during the game. Former Seahawk Matt Hasselbeck is scheduled to start for Tennessee at quarterback, with Locker entering in the first half.