PULLMAN – Marcus Mason’s coaches refer to him as a “middleman” and they mean it as a compliment.
As one of a dwindling number of upperclassmen whose time with the Washington State football program predates the Mike Leach era, Mason is someone the coaches rely upon to condense the instructions they shout in the chaos of practice into useable information that the younger running backs can disseminate.
With a number of drills constantly pulling the coaches attention, it falls to Mason to instruct the young running backs, even as they constantly threaten his grip on a starting position.
With the emergence of senior Theron West in the New Mexico Bowl, as well as the flashes shown by promising redshirt freshmen Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks, the coaches say the running back position is wide open.
“It’s just good to finally have depth and big, strong, physical, fast guys,” running backs coach Jim Mastro said. “It took us two years but we got there and it makes practices fun because the competition is so wide open. They can’t just sit back and say ‘the job is mine’ because it’s nobody’s right now.”
While Mastro would eventually like to settle on two primary backs, he seems in no rush to do so until fall camp is well underway. Mastro has scripted out how many repetitions each running back will get in every spring practice, meaning that even their daily performances will bear little immediate fruit. And so far they have been scripted for other backs.
“I think West has been our most explosive guy and then Morrow, we want to get him in a rhythm,” Leach said.
Such uncertainty could mean limbo for Mason, who started 11 games last season, was named a team captain five times, led WSU with 865 all-purpose yards and was second on the team with 52 receptions.
But Mason hasn’t even set his goals for the season although his father, an army Ranger, will insist he write them down. He hasn’t gotten many reps this spring, either, in part because of a groin injury and in part because Mastro wanted to see the young guys first.
He says he likes the competition, and that, “you never want to go to a school where you’re the only guy.”
And so his spring has been spent doling out the advice. Whether it be to West, who had only one carry last season before piling up 67 all-purpose yards in the bowl game. Or to Morrow, whose work during Thursday night practices in his redshirt season have coaches eager to see what he can do in a real game.
“It’s a big battle and we all love it. It keeps us excited,” West said. “We just roll in every day and take turns on scout team. Each and every single one of us, we just compete, compete, compete, compete and we’re going to battle it out.”
With his groin injury behind him and nine practices left, including the spring game, Mason will start to see his repetitions increase from here on out.
He’ll have his shot to remind his coaches that newer isn’t always better, and that his big, late-season performances against Arizona and Utah were a big part of the reason they had a chance to see West in the bowl game.
Then, if he does solidify his spot, he’ll go to his teammates and show them how to do it, too.
“He knows where he stands,” Mastro said. “He knows he’s going to play but he does a great job of helping these guys during practice and understanding what we want out of these guys.”
Receiver Brett Bartolone wasn’t at Tuesday’s practice but remains in good standing with the team, according to Leach.