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WSU postition preview: Cougars still have that three-part harmony at running back

Washington State running back Jamal Morrow has had an exceptional preseason. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State running back Jamal Morrow has had an exceptional preseason. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

This is the second of eight WSU Cougars football position previews. Today: Running backs. Next: Receivers

PULLMAN – Although some might accuse the Washington State coaches of breaking up the band, the old Cougars running back trio of Earth, Wind and Fire will spend 2016 on a reunion tour.

Last year Gerard Wicks, Keith Harrington and Jamal Morrow earned that musical nickname because of their unique but complementary styles of play. While Harrington has lined up at wide receiver in recent practices, that also means the trio has all been on the field at the same time thanks to WSU’s two-back sets.

The Cougars will still have a backfield trio, of course. Talented freshman James Williams will complete the trifecta after redshirting last year.

While the move to H-receiver may not yet be permanent for Harrington, it makes a lot of sense. He was originally a wide receiver who was moved early in his career because of depth issues at running back.

“We’re going to check him out,” coach Mike Leach said on Wednesday. “I thought he looked really good today. We’ve got four running backs and obviously he can play that, but also we wanted to get as many playmakers as we can on the field, so we wanted to take a look at him there. He’s got some experience there, too. I thought he looked pretty polished there today.”

Morrow has had an exceptional preseason, playing so well that the coaches may be forced to give him the bulk of the carries. Wicks has played well, and is an established player.

Each player rarely has bad practices. Morrow, one of the best pass-catching running backs in school history, has improved his play in the red zone. Conversely, Wicks is a bruising tailback who has become a more polished pass-catcher.

“Jamal always practices well,” said running backs coach Jim Mastro. “And I think just a year later, a year older with those guys, him and Gerard both, it’s showing.”

Williams is, of course, the wild card in all this. He is without a doubt the most athletic running back, and can make defenders miss in one square foot of open space, while still having the strength to knock somebody over.

The freshman had a great spring, to the point where it appeared he might actually be the most likely to emerge from the pack of backs. He had a successful debut in the Crimson and Gray game with 67 combined rushing and receiving yards, and a touchdown.

But Williams’ momentum has halted during WSU’s 2016 preseason.

“He’ll do two great things in a row and two horrible things in a row,” Mastro said. “It’s just part of being young and learning it. Gerard and Jamal are very consistent, and do things right almost all the time. James needs to get to that point. He’s gotten a lot better but he’s got a ways to go.”

It is reasonable to think that Morrow and Wicks will get the majority of WSU’s meaningful reps during the early games, with Williams getting the majority of his work once the Cougars have built meaningful leads, perhaps with a coming-out party against a team that has a tough time matching up, say, Idaho.

But if he has a great week of practice or the other running backs falter, then he will be the guy, for at least one week. It’s the same policy for Morrow and Wicks: The go-to-guy will be determined on a week-to-week basis.

“That’s probably what it’s going to be, so they know they have to produce,” Mastro said. “That’s the good thing. If they don’t play well or don’t practice well, we have somebody else to go to.”

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