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Washington State mailbag: Addressing the future of the running back position in a post-Max Borghi world

Washington State running back Jouvensly Bazil (center) has shown flashes of potential but is probably further down the depth chart for 2020.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State running back Jouvensly Bazil (center) has shown flashes of potential but is probably further down the depth chart for 2020. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

In a previous story, not long after the NCAA announced athletes wouldn’t have to forfeit a year of eligibility even if they compete this fall, I (jokingly) floated the concept of Max Borghi returning to Pullman as a fifth-year senior in 2022 to shattering every rushing, receiving and scoring record at Washington State.

Run the numbers. It checks out.

Then I brought the reader back to reality. Borghi’s college clock is ticking and if his production is consistent, or better, than his first two seasons at WSU, it’s hard to imagine the standout running back returning for a fourth season.

Borghi’s loss, whenever it does happen, will undoubtedly sting, but it could be exacerbated because the Cougars don’t necessarily have a clear-cut replacement. WSU fans were sad to see James Williams go, but it was easy to stomach that loss because of the promise Borghi showed as a freshman. Likewise, Jamal Morrow was an important asset for the Cougars under Mike Leach, but his departure meant more touches for Williams.

In this edition of the mailbag, we dive into WSU’s future at the running back position.

With the very real possibility this may be Max Borghi’s last season at WSU, is there concern WSU does not have a running back commitment for the 2021 class at this point?

- John D.

The absence of a running back in this recruiting class on Oct. 2 isn’t as worrisome as it would be on Dec. 16. Rolovich and his staff still have more than two months to round out their first full signing class, and it would be surprising – no shocking – if running back wasn’t a position of priority right now.

So far, the Cougars have filled every other need and even have an Aussie punter to show for the 2021 class. There’s a quarterback, three wide receivers, two offensive linemen, two linebackers, four “edges,” a defensive tackle, two safeties, one cornerback and the aforementioned punter.

You touched on the potential loss of Max Borghi. I’d imagine we’ll have a good sense by the time the early signing period rolls around which way the junior running back is leaning. Provided he doesn’t miss any time this season, Borghi will be the centerpiece of WSU’s offense and even in seven or eight games, should have more than a few opportunities to turn the heads of the NFL’s decision-makers.

If Borghi has an opportunity to leave, he should. Some already consider him a top-10 running back in the 2021 Draft. If he falls in that range, the choice is a no-brainer.

So, what else do the Cougars have in the cupboard? Senior Deon McIntosh, the former Notre Dame running back who had 111 yards rushing and 113 receiving in his first season at WSU, could theoretically return to the Cougars in fall 2021, given the NCAA isn’t docking a season of eligibility for those who play this fall. Frankly, that could be a shrewd move for McIntosh, who’s had a bit of a rocky college career so far. McIntosh will take a backseat to Borghi this fall, so he may benefit from spending one full season as a primary ball-carrier at the Power Five level.

Granted, sticking around would also make McIntosh a sixth-year senior in 2021 and for all the benefits I just mentioned, the running back who’s traveled from Florida to Indiana to Mississippi to Washington has already put on lots of mileage as a college football player, and another 365 days on the Palouse may not be the most appealing option.

If there’s no Borghi and no McIntosh next fall, Jouvensly Bazil, the redshirt freshman speedster from Florida, becomes the only returning scholarship back in 2021.

Bazil is flashy, but he simply doesn’t have the reps or experience at this point to take the torch from Borghi, and it’s likely he’ll be buried behind both Borghi and McIntosh on the depth chart this fall.

So, yes, Rolovich and Co. could use another running back. Probably two.

According to 247Sports.com, of the 15 running backs the Cougars have offered, all but four have committed to another school. Of the four who haven’t, three are four- or five-star prospects who presumably have their sights set elsewhere.

I’m sure the staff has a plan for the running back position. Then a backup plan. Then a backup plan for the backup plan. At the same time, it’s hard to blame WSU fans if they feel a little uneasy at the moment.

With the attrition at outside WR who is someone(s) to keep an eye out for in fall camp?

- Casey F.

Calvin Jackson Jr. seems the best-equipped to fill one of the two vacancies at outside wide receiver, but I won’t be paying too much attention to him during camp, if only because I’ve seen what he’s capable of for two seasons and would all but guarantee he’ll show up at the top of the depth chart in early November, and should also be a candidate to lead the Cougars in receiving yards.

So, no offense to Jackson , but I tend to watch (if I’m able to watch, of course) lesser-known players on the fringe of grabbing a starting job or breaking out. I’d imagine those are the ones you’d all prefer to read about, too.

With that said, the most intriguing receiver you – or I for that matter – don’t know much about is probably Brandon Gray. The Michigan native is big, tall, strong and someone who could grow into a mismatch problem for Pac-12 cornerbacks. Gray is listed at 6-foot-5, so he’ll have 2 or 3 inches on the tallest Pac-12 defensive backs and 4 or 4 inches on the smaller ones.

I may have mentioned this in a previous mailbag, but if Nick Rolovich and receivers coach Andre Allen chose to go with Jackson at one outside spot, I’d think they’d probably want to balance things out by choosing a bigger option at the other spot. Between Jackson (5-10), Jamire Calvin (5-10), Travell Harris (5-9) and Renard Bell (5-8), the group is already pretty small as is.

But, something else to consider is Hawaii’s 2019 receiving corps. The starters consisted of JoJo Ward (5-9), Jared Smart (6-0), Cedric Byrd (5-9) and Jason-Matthew Sharsh (6-0). Perhaps shorter, quicker receivers are more suited to thrive in the run-and-shoot. Or maybe Rolovich’s staff struggled recruiting big, athletic wideouts to the island.

Nonetheless, next to starting quarterback, how the receivers are handled should be the top offensive storyline during fall camp.

With Leach gone will you be able to report on practices now?

- Nick S.

Frankly, I have no clue what to expect, but I do know whatever access we get this year will largely be determined by COVID-19 protocols and not Rolovich protocols. I’m not expecting we’ll be able to view practice in any capacity this season, and it sounds like post-practice interviews will be conducted through Zoom – no different from every other interaction we’ve had with Rolovich since March.

During normal years, media could observe fall camp without any restrictions, but access was limited when the season began. Media members could watch the first 15-20 minutes of practice but were banned from the rest. There’s not much to be gleaned from watching players get their limbs loose, so I typically passed on that opportunity and showed up near the end of practice for interviews.

There’s lots of room in Martin Stadium, so I think there’s probably a way to allow media members in the doors without compromising the health and safety of players. Sitting 20 rows up from the field, or even in the press box, would still give me a glimpse of everything going on, a good feel for Rolovich’s offense and Jake Dickert’s defense, and a better understanding of who fits where on the depth chart.

Somehow, this question has turned into a personal campaign to let media members watch practice. I promise that wasn’t the intention. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll have a better idea of what access will look like in the next week or two. This season was never a certainty, so don’t get me wrong: I’ll be grateful one way or the other.

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