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Cougs’ Gerard Wicks appears to have edge at starting running back

Six-foot, 225-pound running back Gerard Wicks has inside track to start Saturday. (Associated Press)
Six-foot, 225-pound running back Gerard Wicks has inside track to start Saturday. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – To hear Washington State’s coaches gush about their trio of running backs, you’d think they prefer to never name a starter.

But somebody has to be on the field when the Cougars take their first snap on offense against Portland State on Saturday and indications from practice, and WSU’s recently-released depth chart, suggest redshirt sophomore Gerard Wicks has fashioned just a tiny bit of space between he, Jamal Morrow, also a redshirt soph, and redshirt freshman Keith Harrington.

There may not be much daylight there, but it’s enough for Wicks to run through. Each of WSU’s three running backs bring a different dominant skillset, and Wicks runs at defenders with elbows and shoulders initiating collisions backed up by his 6-foot, 225-pound frame.

That won’t always be what the coaches want out of the running back position, but it will be an asset in short-yardage situations, and whenever the Cougars want to beat up the defense a little bit.

“It kind of depends what play we’re running,” coach Mike Leach said. “I mean, they can all do things the others can’t. The most consistent guy is probably Morrow, Wicks is explosive if he’s carrying the ball. The best receiver of them is Keith Harrington and Harrington is the best at making people miss.”

The funny thing about Wicks is that even though he’s been given the battering-ram’s role at WSU, the coaches initially noticed him for his speed. As a high school athlete at California’s Long Beach Poly, Wicks was a key member of the track team, and competed in the Junior Olympics in four events.

Leach says that he prefers football players who run track in high school because they “know how to run,” although there are fewer multi-sport athletes than there used to be.

It was Wicks’ track speed that first caught the eyes of his future college coaches.

“He was one of the fastest guys out there and then you could tell he was going to be a big guy,” Leach said. “Then, he was one of the feature backs at Long Beach Poly and they’ve got a lot to pick from.”

There are other reasons to think that Wicks could emerge as WSU’s feature back, but the coaches counter all of them. With his size, you ask, might he be the best-equipped to absorb the pounding that comes with a heavy workload? The coaches will respond that the three backs will each take enough carries away from the others to keep everybody fresh.

Wicks seemed to break off the most explosive runs during spring practices and preseason camp, you could point out. So, shouldn’t that indicate that he has the best combination of big-play ability and short-yardage potential?

Ah, but it was Morrow who led the team in carries (87) and yards-per-rush (4.9), all while setting a school record for receptions by a running back (61), the coaches will doubtlessly note.

Wicks, who led WSU with four rushing touchdowns last season, may indeed have the edge. But he didn’t always and there are no guarantees he will keep it.

“All three will play, it’s basically a toss-up,” said running backs coach Jim Mastro. “At the end of last year Wicks kind of emerged as the guy we want to really emphasize and all three had such a great fall camp. He’ll get the start and we’ll play from there. The one that produces is going to play, so if he’s hot he’ll play a bunch.”

Free tickets

After three days of clean air in Pullman, it appears that Washington State’s 11 a.m. game against Portland State will not be impacted by local wildfires. So, the Cougars are using their unsold tickets to help those who do need some relief.

WSU Athletics is offering free tickets to families, firefighters and relief workers from affected communities. WSU is also offering one end zone ticket to anyone who donates three food items or a case of bottled water, which will go to Second Harvest of Spokane and be used by those affected by the fires.

Food items can be exchanged for a ticket at the WSU ticket office outside Martin Stadium on Saturday. To arrange for free tickets, call the WSU ticket office at 1-800-GO-COUGS.

The athletic department has also partnered with KXLY radio to provide 200 tickets to people who make cash donations to the Red Cross from 5-9 a.m. and 5-7 p.m. today at the Spokane Federal Credit Union.

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