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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU spring football: RB Keith Harrington impresses, but must become more consistent

PULLMAN – Flashes and bursts are the images most appropriately associated with the inconstant nature of freshman running back Keith Harrington, whose coaches are annoyed by his inconsistency, but beguiled by his unpredictable running style.

Such was the case during Tuesday’s practice when Harrington struggled to pick up blitzes, made little impact in the ground game and – a former receiver, no less – dropped a pair of passes during the “skeleton” passing drill.

While the entire offense suffered some malaise during Tuesday’s practice, Harrington’s listlessness in particular seemed to upset his coaches. Probably because they’d just seen him electrocute the defense during Saturday’s scrimmage, rushing for 85 yards and a score on six carries and adding 53 more yards as a pass-catcher.

If he played like that every practice, he might be WSU’s most alluring back. But his coaches seem reticent to flip the high-risk, high-reward coin of an inconsistent back.

“If you can’t do it two days in a row, then you’re not going to get out there very much,” coach Mike Leach said after Tuesday’s practice.

Of course, just two days earlier Leach said, “At the rate he’s going, he might be (our) first option,” showing just how impactful Harrington could be, and just how fickle his status is in the eyes of his coaches.

It would be entirely normal for a player less than a year out of high school to have good days and bad days except that Harrington’s abrupt rise demands he be ready for a role on the team next fall.

He came to WSU as a receiver last year and began taking reps for the scout team at running back – the position he played for Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Florida – after Squally Canada’s transfer left the Cougars short of bodies in practice and during underclassmen scrimmages.

Soon, running backs coach Jim Mastro insisted the stopgap switch become permanent.

“It wasn’t too big of a fight,” Mastro said. “I just said we’ve got to move him. It was obvious what he was doing to our defense last year that he had to be a running back.”

Harrington stands only 5-foot-7 and came to WSU weighing just 170 pounds, meaning the coaches needed to project that he would be able to keep his speed while gaining another 10 or so pounds to play receiver and 30 to play running back.

He’s up to 185 pounds now, halfway to where the Cougars want him to be, and seemingly still speeding up as the game slows down.

“What I didn’t know when I came here was that it’s all mental, and I didn’t feel like my mind was in the right place,” Harrington said. “But then once I got out here, I realized it’s the same sport I’ve been playing since I was little. You just have to come out here and play hard.”

The Cougars already have two promising young players of contrasting styles at the position in Jamal Morrow – a smooth glider and a good receiver out of the backfield – and fellow sophomore Gerard Wicks – a sprinting bull that powers through initial tackles and then outruns the reinforcements.

Both played well last season, but neither showed the ability to do what Harrington flashed in the scrimmage.

He had long runs of 27 and 32 yards that showcased his ability to get through the line of scrimmage quickly, and then eat up yards before new defenders can converge. But they were runs that Morrow could have replicated easily and Wicks would have ended up in the same place with a few casualties left behind.

The play that only Harrington could have made came later, when he took a handoff and sprinted at a hole in the offensive line, drawing in the defense and nearly reaching the line of scrimmage before springing backward, switching angles and choosing a new opening with no defenders behind it before sauntering into the end zone.

It was a display of vision and athleticism that, for now, is unique to Harrington among the running backs and the reason he’ll see the field next fall, even if the playing time comes inconsistently.