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Washington State’s Max Borghi returns with sights on being ‘the best running back in the country’

Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi mugs for a camera during a spring college football practice April 8 on WSU’s practice field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Max Borghi had a fairly good sense of where he’d be playing football this fall long before the Washington State running back provided social media confirmation to a fan base nervously waiting on pins and needles. An Instagram graphic shared to Borghi’s 12,900 followers, and 5,600 more on Twitter, was just a formality.

The familiarity of No. 21 rifling through holes and eluding defenders in Washington State’s backfield will make it harder to replace Borghi when he does eventually bolt for the NFL, but Nick Rolovich and his staff won’t have to face that reality for at least another eight months after the running back announced his return to the Cougars in 2021.

“I think for me it was a pretty easy decision,” Borghi told reporters Saturday after the team’s second spring scrimmage. “Obviously last season didn’t go how I wanted it to, as far as just with COVID and then obviously I played one game out of four. That wasn’t what I wanted. I want a breakout year, I want a big year. I need a big year. So that’s why I’m back, I’m back for a big year.”

Perhaps that was even too modest, because Borghi immediately clarified: “I’m back to be the best running back in the country.”

It may have been a title Borghi was also targeting in 2020, but a back injury sidelined him for WSU’s first three games and the running back’s long-awaited return was spoiled when a Cal player tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the teams to cancel 90 minutes prior to kickoff. So, WSU’s season finale at Utah was also Borghi’s debut. He held up fine, rushing 10 times for 95 yards, one touchdown and one fumble, but the sample size wasn’t as large as Borghi hoped it would be. There was little evidence to show NFL teams were viewing the Colorado native as a top-end prospect.

That’s the perception he hopes to gain with another year in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, which tends to feature running backs in a more traditional role than the Air Raid system Borghi was recruited to play in. In 2019, Mike Leach’s running backs averaged 11.7 carries per game – a decent dropoff from the 17.7 carries Rolovich’s tailbacks averaged last season.

“I think we’re definitely opening up the playbook a little bit,” Borghi said. “Obviously our OC, coach (Smith), and Rolo and everyone, they know we’ve got some weapons all over the board so they’re going to use their weapons in different ways. They know the running backs, obviously we played under Mike Leach – me and Deon – so they know we can catch the ball. So we’re obviously going to catch the ball, we’re going to do everything we can to beat the defense.”

Borghi and fellow senior Deon McIntosh could form one of the best backfield duos the school’s seen in a long time. Borghi’s absence last season coincided with McIntosh’s emergence as the former Notre Dame running back rushed 52 times for 323 yards and three touchdowns, including a 147-yard effort against Oregon State.

Of the two Borghi would be considered more of a power back, though that’s even somewhat misleading considering his ability to make defenders miss in space and his tendency to win footraces with cornerbacks and safeties. McIntosh demonstrated exceptional field vision and stamina as WSU’s No. 1 running back in 2020 and was extremely proficient in pass-blocking situations.

“Me and Deon just want to be so great together. We push each other every single day,” Borghi said. “We’re both really competitive guys and I think it just brings the nature out of both of us and I think the season’s going to be a good season. I think we’re a real good two-headed monster. Obviously you know what he’s capable of and you know what I’m capable of and we’re just taking it day by day and getting better each and every practice and we’re excited for this season. It’s going to be a big one.”

Though opportunities have been harder to come by in spring scrimmages that have seen carries split between four or five running backs, Borghi and McIntosh have been efficient with the reps they’ve had. On Saturday, Borghi had three carries for 23 yards while McIntosh carried twice for 21 years and had another four receptions for 54 yards. In two scrimmages, the team’s top running backs have tallied nine carries for 73 yards (8.1 ypc).

“What it’s going to give us is the ability to stay fresh the majority of the year, I would be think, by using them both,” Rolovich said. “They both have a lot of talent and I know the run and screen game may have been the best thing we did today offensively.

“I thought the run game, you saw some good holes, good numbers that we gained and I think we made the most of it.”