SEATTLE – University of Washington football coaches figured coming into the season that they would use a running back-by-committee scenario to handle the running game.
After all, there was no shortage of athletes at that position. Junior Kenny James led the team in rushing last year. Shelton Sampson had the speed the coaches loved. Louis Rankin seemed ready for a breakout after a strong spring. James Sims Jr. wowed coaches with his athleticism. And Johnie Kirton was a 280-pound load.
Why not go with all of them?
Well, things have changed a little.
James has been out since the first day of fall camp with a bruised shoulder. Because of injuries, Kirton is seeing more time at tight end than in the backfield, and looking good doing it.
And Rankin has shown he could be a star in the making. In Saturday’s 20-17 loss to Air Force, the 195-pound sophomore from Stockton, Calif. ran for 112 yards on 23 carries in the first start of his Washington career. He averaged almost five yards a carry, including one run of 25 yards. The only other back to get any carries was Sims, who had six. So is the group effort over?
“It’s always a plus if you can keep guys fresh,” UW coach Tyrone Willingham said. “At the same time, good runners need to carry the ball a certain amount of time to get a feel for the game. So you have to balance that.”
“We knew he was the type of back that could make people miss,” offensive coordinator Tim Lappano said. “What impressed me was his willingness to take on tacklers. He showed he isn’t an easy guy to take down.”
There’s been high hopes for Rankin since he signed with Washington out of Lincoln High School, where he ran for 34 TDs (and had 41 total) and gained 2,245 yards as a senior. Rankin redshirted his first season, but won the Offensive Scout Squad MVP award.
He said he came in with plenty of confidence but quickly learned he would have to do more than just show up to have success in college football.
“I came in pretty cocky,” Rankin said. “But I saw that everyone here was great players. I couldn’t just get by like I could in high school. I had to work a lot harder.”
Rankin competed for the starting job last season before settling in as a backup running back and kick returner. He played in eight games, carrying nine times for 39 yards. He then had a standout spring session and came into this season regarded as a legitimate candidate to start.
“I was just happy getting a chance to compete,” Rankin said. “Coach Willingham said when he got here that jobs were open and everyone would get a chance to show what they could do. So I just did the best I could.”
Willingham said he’s seen more patience from Rankin this fall than he did in the spring, a sign that the running back is more confident and comfortable in the system.
Though both Willingham and Lappano favor a strong running game, they agree that even though Rankin has been impressive, the team still won’t primarily employ a run-heavy offense.
“The key for us isn’t going to be power football,” Willingham said. “It’s going to be mix the game up.”
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