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University of Washington Huskies Football

UW running back Richard Newton intent on ‘making something out of nothing.’ But should he have to?

Washington running back Richard Newton in action against Montana in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Seattle.   (Elaine Thompson)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

The answer said it all.

When asked on Tuesday how he can personally improve, UW running back Richard Newton — who has mustered just 86 rushing yards and three yards per carry in the Huskies’ 0-2 start — considered the question, then said: “Making something out of nothing. I think I could do that a lot better.”

In the last two losses, the 6-foot, 215-pound Newton has had to do that a lot. There has been precious little running room for Newton and redshirt freshman Cameron Davis, as UW ranks 127th out of 130 teams nationally in rushing offense (57.5 yards per game) and 128th in yards per carry (1.95) — while surrendering seven sacks of Dylan Morris as well.

Of course, Newton stopped short of directly implicating his underperforming offensive line.

But for a group that returns all five starters — four of which earned All-Pac-12 honors last fall — results have fallen astronomically short of expectations.

“I still have extremely high hopes for those guys, and for our whole team,” said UW head coach Jimmy Lake. “But for sure, we have to block the run better. We have to protect our quarterback better. That’s not the only position group that needs improvement. A lot of position groups need improvement and need to play better. But having all those guys back, and we added a few guys, and with another year with our offense, we need to function better. And it starts with coaching.

“I’m not going to throw … it starts with coaching. We have to coach them better. We have to put plays in that are going to work so we can get some positive flow going on that side of the ball.”

As Lake alluded to, this is a schematic and play-calling issue as well — as Washington continues to stubbornly run Newton and Davis into boxes loaded with unsurprised opponents (while declining to turn to running backs Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant, too).

But left tackle Jaxson Kirkland — a 2020 All-Pac-12 first-team selection, who allowed Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson to secure 2.5 sacks last Saturday — is holding himself to a higher standard just the same.

“In terms of preparation, after each loss that we’ve had I’m going into each week trying out new things, putting in more hours than I have,” Kirkland said. “I already do put in the extra work, but I’m going to keep going to the next step.

“If that means I have to live in this facility and watch film the whole time or keep getting in extra work on the field after practice is done, I’ll do it. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to elevate the offensive line play and my play, too.”

We’ll see if the extra effort pays dividends on Saturday, against an Arkansas State defense that ranks 113th nationally in opponent yards per carry (5.35).

Kirkland, for one, is attempting to make the most of a difficult moment.

“A big part of this adversity we’re taking right now excites me, because it’s where you find out who the real people are. The best players will step up,” he said. “Coach Lake told us, ‘Who wants to get in the back alley with me?’ All of us are down to fight and keep crawling and get after people. No matter the adversity that’s thrown at us, we believe we can respond.”

Extra points

•UW wide receivers coach Junior Adams, who served as Western Kentucky’s offensive coordinator in 2017 and 2018 and prior to that was an Eastern Washington assistant, was asked about the ongoing criticism of Husky offensive coordinator John Donovan. “Of course he’s going to get the blame,” Adams said. “That’s the world we live in. The finger is always going to be pointed at somebody. That’s just how this thing (goes). It doesn’t matter if you’re the best basketball player in the world. They’re going to blame you for something. It’s not just on JD (Donovan). This is on us as an offensive staff. We together, collectively, have to get these guys some momentum going into this game and momentum coming out of this game, and have fun. We’re going to stay positive. We’re going to stick to the process. I love JD, and this isn’t solely on JD. This is on us as an offensive staff, and we’ll figure this thing out. I’m very confident we’ll figure this thing out. I am.”

•Lake said in his weekly press conference on Monday that he did not consider turning to true freshman quarterback Sam Huard at any point in last weekend’s 31-10 loss at Michigan. “Again, that didn’t come across our radar at all during this game,” he said. “It was already difficult enough being in an extremely hostile environment with a starting quarterback making his first start in a road game, in a hostile environment, let alone having your freshman quarterback get into a game in a hostile environment. No, that was not part of the plan.”

•Trailing 17-3 late in the third quarter last Saturday, UW’s defense had a chance to get off the field when safety Dominique Hampton corralled Michigan running back Blake Corum for a 6-yard gain near midfield on third-and-13. But a taunting penalty by Hampton extended the drive, and Michigan extended its lead with another touchdown four plays later. “I mean, it’s completely unacceptable,” Lake said of the taunting penalty. “Things that we talk about, we call it FBI — football intelligence. We show these plays all the time and we watch other teams make boneheaded mistakes like that and sure enough here we go, we did it. So now that’s going to be a shining example of what not to do. We had some opportunities to cut that thing to a one-score point spread, but things like that derailed us, and we have to be more detailed than that and we weren’t.”

•Prior to the season, Lake repeatedly praised quarterback Dylan Morris’ ability to diagnose defenses and get his unit out of bad plays based on the opponent’s formation. But, in the wake of an atrocious offensive start, Lake was asked to evaluate how Morris has done in that department. “It’s half and half,” he said. “There’s some plays where he did a good job of getting us out of a bad play or getting us into a good play, and there’s some plays where he did not. Again, we can’t put it all on him, either. We have to make sure we’re calling plays that are going to work regardless of what we’re going to see. So it’s not all on the quarterback at the line of scrimmage — especially when you’re on the road, in a hostile environment like we just were this last Saturday.”

•Speaking of that environment, Lake was impressed by the 108,345 maize-clad Michigan fans stuffed inside “The Big House” last Saturday. “It was a great atmosphere, as you guys who attended could see,” he said. “It probably would have been a lot better if we had made a few more plays and then it could have been a quiet 100,000-plus. But we definitely didn’t give them any reason to stop cheering.”