PULLMAN – Amid all the shuffling that took place this offseason for Washington State’s coaching staff, Mike Leach made a few in-house moves, elevating defensive quality control assistant Darcel McBath to full-time cornerbacks coach and reappointing longtime aide Eric Mele, who’d served three years as the team’s special teams coordinator, to the running backs.
It wasn’t long after Mele inherited his new title that the fourth-year WSU assistant conducted a full audit of the previous season, skimming through the numbers, reviewing game film and jotting down he felt needed correction.
Under Jim Mastro, the running backs were coming off their second straight 1,000/1,000 season – rushing for 1,096 yards and receiving for 1,073. They concluded the year with 14 all-purpose touchdowns – more statistical evidence indicating how Mastro, who’s now at Oregon, revived the position in six seasons on the Palouse.
But a coach is nothing if not nitpicky, and while reviewing the numbers from 2017, Mele came across one that didn’t sit so well with him. Fourteen times last year, the Cougars failed to gain positive yardage or even make it back to the line of scrimmage.
They spent too much time going backward.
“One of the big things kind of watching film from last year was we had quite a few negative plays, negative runs,” said Mele, an offensive quality control assistant at WSU for 2 1/2 years who coached the running backs at Wingate (North Carolina) University before that. “We wanted to eliminate those and make sure everything is getting downhill right now.”
With the sheer volume of passes thrown in Leach’s Air Raid offense, the Cougars are usually less committed to the run than any other team in the country. That was especially true in 2017, when their 303 rushing attempts were a distant last. The next-lowest team was UTEP, which ran the ball 346 times.
That’s to be expected, but Mele wasn’t pleased to see the running backs, who averaged 16.1 carries per game in 2017, finished the year with just six rushing touchdowns and 14 negative plays, which amounted to 27 lost yards. The running backs logged negative plays in nine of the 13 games, had three negative plays in two separate games and lost a whopping 8 yards on a single James Williams run in their 34-point loss to Cal.
Mele’s task this offseason? Get WSU’s running backs thinking positive.
“So even when the play’s not ideal, we need to fall forward for at least 2, 3 yards,” Mele said. “Even if it’s not blocked up great. So that’s kind of where it stemmed from. We’re not hitting the brakes, ever. It’s just, step on the gas pedal, make the right cut, get up the field. Not a bunch of flashy moves, but you can make those in the second level when you get into space.”
Mele was responsible for introducing the “Special Forces” tagline while he was the special teams coordinator and decked out his specialists in camouflage apparel branded with the motto. He wanted their ethos and values to resemble those of the U.S. Military special forces.
Mele launched a similar campaign to drive home the lessons he’s preaching to the Cougars’ running backs this season: “All Gas.”
“I can coach them to get to 5 yards, because I can kind of run that myself if it’s blocked up right,” he said. “But after that, it’s your show – if you want to go ahead and throw a spin move on somebody, you can do that. But hit the gas.”
Mele’s “All Gas” initiative has taken on a life of its own. The running backs no longer gather to watch film in a meeting room – they meet in the “gas station.” Williams, Max Borghi and Keith Harrington – the team’s three primary backs – enjoy ribbing each other about who has supreme gas, who has diesel and who has unleaded. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the “Earth, Wind and Fire” nicknames bestowed on Harrington, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks three years back.
On Sept. 13, Mele unboxed a shipment of retro gas station shirts that underscore the group’s motto. The navy tops have each player’s name on one side and a “WSU RBs” patch on the other. Williams, Borghi, Harrington and fullback Clay Markoff wear the shirts on game days now.
“Then it just kind of morphed from there, so they’re ready to go to work every week and when their time’s called, we’ve gotta hit the gas,” Mele said.
The running backs may have spent too much time in reverse last season, but they aren’t struggling with their sense of direction in 2018.
Following a season in which they had more negative rushes than rushing touchdowns, the tailbacks have crossed the goal line 13 times in eight games and they’ve lost yardage on just eight plays. On those eight plays, they’ve lost only 12 yards.
“I think the running backs are running up the field harder. I think they’re doing a better job of hitting it, rather than trying to sort stuff out and guess and trying to read the defense’s minds, which is a bad habit,” Leach said. “And then I think it’s taken some time to break that. So the biggest thing, we’ve got to hit the hole harder.”
The Cougars are still last in the country when it comes to rushing attempts – by a wide margin – as the only FBS team with fewer than 200. But they’ve been opportunistic and have 15 rushing touchdowns on the season – 13 for the backs and two for quarterback Gardner Minshew. That number places WSU in the top 60 in the nation.
“There’s been a few more zero runs, but like I said, we don’t want those negative-3, negative-4 (yards) in the backfield plays where you’re putting the offense behind the chains,” Mele said.
He’s also proud to point out that his backfield has scored more points than any other in the Pac-12 through eight games. Williams and Borghi are responsible for 19 touchdowns – 13 on the ground and six more in the air. By comparison, it took Williams, Morrow and Wicks 13 games to reach 14 touchdowns in 2017.
Williams’ tendency to dance in the backfield occasionally kept the Cougars behind the chains last season, but the junior refined his running style in the offseason and is seeing the dividends. His 11 all-purpose touchdowns rank second best in the Pac-12 and are tied for eighth in the country. The Cougars have five more games at minimum, and Williams needs only six more touchdowns to tie the single-season school record, set by Steve Broussard and Jerome Harrison.
“I used to have a probably with bouncing things out when I shouldn’t have,” he said. “That comes with experience, so I’m just trying to be better on that, on my part, and just trying to teach Max not to do it too.”
Borghi, the rookie sensation who’s getting more Christian McCaffrey comparisons by the week, should be aiming for WSU’s single-season freshman TD record. He’s rushed for five touchdowns and caught three more for a total of eight, and needs four more to match the mark Deon Burnett set in 1999.
Williams said Borghi’s physical, blue-collar running style has been infectious. The fourth-year junior is often a mentor to his younger teammate, but Williams has picked up a thing or two from watching Borghi as well.
“He hits the holes real well, probably better than I did when I was a freshman,” Williams said. “He runs real hard and I see that, too, so I run as hard as I can, too.”
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