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‘He just has a presence on the field.’ Max Borghi makes long-awaited return to Washington State practice

It may not be Sunday, but Max Borghi should be playing meaningful football for Washington State in the near future.

Last week, WSU coach Nick Rolovich said the prerequisite for Borghi returning to the field for a game was the junior running back returning to practice. It’s unclear if that happened Monday or Tuesday, but one of the most talented skill players in the Pac-12 is taking practice reps with the Cougars for the first time since injuring his back during preseason camp.

“Yeah, it was good to have him out there,” Rolovich said Tuesday. “Nice to see 21 out there again and I think he just has a presence on the field that affects the rest of the team positively. So, we were happy for that.”

Borghi practicing with the team doesn’t necessarily guarantee the standout back will be in uniform for the Cougars on Sunday. With practices closed during the season, it’s unclear what his level of participation has been since returning.

It does leave the door open for a return this weekend, however, and while the intent of moving WSU’s game against USC to Sunday was to accommodate the Trojans’ COVID-19 outbreak, it also benefits Borghi, who’ll have two additional days of practice.

By all accounts, Borghi has taken the necessary steps to get back on the field in a somewhat timely fashion, but it doesn’t mean the process of doing so hasn’t taken a mental or emotional toll on the Colorado native.

Asked about his running back’s mindset the last month, Rolovich said Borghi has been “angry.” That’s reasonable, given he probably feels he could’ve chipped in during WSU’s 43-29 loss to Pac-12 North favorite Oregon, and has ambitions to play professional football in the near future.

“He just wants to play,” Rolovich said. “I think he handles things – and I understand they’re amateurs, I understand it’s college – but you still have professional habits, especially as you get up into your older years … and I think he knows what it’s going to take for him to make it at the next level and excel in it.

“And I think he’s already taking on those habits and that mindset. So yeah, I would say he was angry.”

It’s been equally reassuring for WSU teammates to see Borghi’s No. 21 practice jersey. Left tackle Liam Ryan indicated despite the injury, Borghi looks as explosive and dynamic as he did in 2019, when he rushed for 817 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 86 passes for 597 yards and five touchdowns.

“Of course,” Ryan said. “He’s been dedicated to getting back onto the field. He worked just as hard, just like he would be on the field. So it’s been nice to see him back out there and he’s going to work hard to get back and playing his role. His role has been different this year.

“Don’t forget about Deon (McIntosh) now, don’t forget about that guy.”

In Borghi’s absence, McIntosh emerged as a legitimate No. 1 Pac-12 tailback, rushing for 239 yards and an average of 7.0 yards per carry, with two touchdowns on the ground.

Despite the Cougars playing fewer games than many of their peers in the conference, McIntosh is the Pac-12’s fourth-leading rusher at 119 yards per game.

Pairing Borghi with McIntosh in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, which features its running backs, or “super backs,” in a more traditional role than Mike Leach’s Air Raid, could give the Cougars one of the conference’s most formidable backfield duos in the final few weeks of the season.

It’s unclear how Rolovich and his staff would rotate the running backs, but having the option to do so is something that didn’t always seem to be a certainty.

“Man, it’s a good feeling, (Borghi) looks good out there,” linebacker Jahad Woods said. “I know it’s been awhile since he put the pads on, but he stayed in shape and he’s always going to be ready to ball.”