James Montgomery’s remarkable recovery from an injury that almost cost him the lower part of his left leg has been as inspirational as it was unlikely.
But the fuzzy, feel-good story of Washington State University’s senior running back seems to have also overshadowed one of the most competitive and intriguing position battles of fall camp.
Montgomery, a 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior, came dangerously close to becoming an amputee after developing anterior lateral compartment syndrome in his lower left leg following a 30-27 overtime win over Southern Methodist in the Cougars’ third game of the 2009 season.
He underwent what many thought might be career-ending surgery to repair the problem that was the apparent result of a blow to the leg. Yet, he is back on the field again this fall as one of six running backs hoping to take over the starting spot vacated by Dwight Tardy.
“I feel good again,” Montgomery said following Thursday morning’s practice. “But it’s a battle out here every day. We’ve just got a lot of good backs, and right now we’re all fighting for reps, because there aren’t that many to go around.”
Joining Montgomery, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry in the three games he played as a junior, on WSU’s deep list of running back prospects are fellow seniors Chantz Staden and Marcus Richmond, junior Logwone Mitz, sophomore Carl Winston and first-year freshman Rickey Galvin.
All but Richmond, who was used primarily as a fullback, got a handful of carries during the scrimmage portions of Thursday’s practice, giving third-year head coach Paul Wulff plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about his running game.
“There’s a lot of competition and the three seniors in that group are going to have to play very well to earn playing time,” Wulff said. “The freshman is coming on – Galvin – and there’s no question he’s going to be right in the mix.”
Galvin, a 5-8, 162-pounder, has been one of the most pleasant surprises of fall camp after rushing for 2,264 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at Berkeley (Calif.) High School last fall.
“Rickey has really brought another dimension to the group,” said first-year assistant Dave Ungerer, who coaches running backs and special teams. “He’s one of those smaller, quicker, faster types, and a nice change up to James, Logwone and Chantz, who are more power-type runners.”
The depth at running back, which Ungerer calls “unbelievable,” has given the Cougars a chance to experiment with Richmond, a 6-1, 218-pounder, at the fullback, or H-back position.
“Being able to do that has helped our running game,” Ungerer said. “We can always move him back if we need to, because in this league you need a lot of good backs, and I think we’re in that position.”
Montgomery and Mitz got the majority of reps with the No. 1 offense on Thursday, but Ungerer said the depth chart at running back will remain fluid throughout the rest of camp – although Montgomery seems to be the front-runner for the starting position.
“Getting James healthy is the biggest thing we want to do this camp – get the rust knocked off him and get him feeling good again,” Ungerer said. “And we need to balance the number of reps he’s getting and, hopefully, have him for 11 games. He’s a heck of a talent, and we feel like we’re a better football team when he’s in the game.”
Still, it will be the play of the offensive line that will dictate just how much the Cougars’ running game will go this fall. Mitz, a 6-1, 230-pounder, is impressed with the improvement he has seen up front.
“Our O-line has really come a long way,” said the two-year letterwinner, who rushed for 173 yards a touchdown as a sophomore last fall. “They’re 20 to 25 pounds, on average, bigger than they were last year, and they look good.
“It’s nice to run behind somebody who’s bigger than I am, finally.”