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Huskies running back Polk piles up big, quiet numbers

SEATTLE – It seemed somewhat fitting, if not a tad bit cruel, that one of the finest first-half rushing performances in recent University of Washington memory got blurred by a blowout loss at Stanford last week.

Such has been the plight of Huskies running back Chris Polk.

After spending his first two full seasons in the shadow of quarterback Jake Locker, the junior halfback entered this season with plenty of attention – he even had some Heisman Trophy buzz heading into the campaign – but quickly got forgotten on a team with one of the most exciting young quarterbacks (Keith Price) in the country.

And yet Polk, who last week had 143 of his 144 rushing yards in the first half at Stanford, has quietly put up the kind of numbers that might be living up to the one-time Heisman hype.

He is the Pacific-12 Conference’s runaway leader in rushing yards (872, which gives him 162 more than any other Pac-12 runner) and rushing yards per game (124.6, which makes him the only Pac-12 runner averaging more than 102 rushing yards per game).

Polk ranks fifth in the nation in rushing yards per game, putting him ahead of Heisman front-runner Trent Richardson of Alabama and a cast of other big names such as Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) and Montee Ball (Wisconsin).

He has run for 100 or more yards in six of UW’s seven games this season and has a legitimate shot at eclipsing Corey Dillon’s 17-year-old school record of 1,695 yards in a season. Polk’s clip, even if the Huskies don’t earn a bowl bid and play a 13th game, would push him past his 2010 total of 1,415 rushing yards. He’s also averaging a career-best 21.3 yards per reception and ranks sixth in the Pac-12 with seven touchdowns.

Quietly, Polk is having his best season as a UW running back.

“People get so used to Chris going out and rushing for 125 yards, it’s just another ho-hum day at the office,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said. “But he’s playing really good football for us. The little things we were hoping he’d take the next step with, he is.”

If there is one area where Polk’s improvement has been most evident, it’s as a breakaway threat.

He had two long touchdown runs – of 46 and 61 yards – in the first half of the Stanford game and has three touchdowns of 20 or more yards this season. He had just two during the 13-game schedule last year.

During the first eight games of 2010, Polk had just five runs that went 20 yards or longer. This season, he has eight through seven games.

“The emphasis from halfway through last season to spring ball to now has been: Win in the secondary,” running backs coach Joel Thomas said. “That’s what separates him from being on the radar or off the radar – getting into the secondary and making plays. It’s been about taking that long run of 18 or 20 yards and making it 60 or 70.”

Sarkisian said that the subject came up again as the Huskies prepared to face Stanford.

“We had challenged him, actually, last week,” Sarkisian said. “‘If you really want to take that next step to where people are talking about you, that’s got to be the next phase that comes. And to see him break those tackles in the secondary, and then out-run corners to the end zone, was very impressive.”

“He’s really improved from game to game to game this year,” Sarkisian said, “and I’m really excited to coach him for the next five (of Polk’s junior season).”