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Here’s why running backs choose WSU

It’s not in spite of the Air Raid — it’s because of it.

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington State Cougars likely raised a lot of eyebrows when they were able to flip former Colorado Buffaloes commit Max Borghi, a three-star running back from the Buffs’ state, last night.

It’s only surprising, though, to those who haven’t been paying attention to what Mike Leach and running backs coach Jim Mastro have been doing with the position since they arrived. Casual fans around the country think to themselves, “Why would a running back want to play in the Air Raid?”

Personally, I think: Why wouldn’t they?

As a percentage of overall touches in the offense, the running back’s share has been steadily rising over Leach’s tenure. Here’s what it looked like for Leach’s first four years in Pullman, via Brian Anderson. Running back position = “F”:

In 2016, the touches per game for “F” jumped all the way up to 31.5(!) — a whopping 54 percent of touches among the skill players.

No, a running back at WSU is never going to get 25 carries in a game. But last season, James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks touched the ball 150, 138 and 117 times respectively, gaining 927, 1063 and 659 yards. For comparison, Alabama’s three-headed running back monster finished with 160, 129 and 99 touches for 1136, 834 and 723 yards — in 15 games.

That’s 31.5 touches per game for WSU running backs vs. 25.9 for Alabama.

Obviously, there are other reasons why running backs choose Alabama or other blue blood-type programs over WSU; however, since there’s really no reason why it should matter whether the player acquired the ball via handoff or reception, playing running back at WSU ought to be a more attractive to a recruit than its peer institutions. (Looking at you, recruits who have offers from Colorado, Cal, Utah and Arizona — all of whom Borghi turned down to come to Pullman.)

A touch is a touch, and if the player is awesome, he’s going to do some damage. Like so:

Now, I have absolutely no idea how Pro Football Focus measures “elusiveness” because, like always, there’s zero transparency about PFF’s actual process. (The graphic doesn’t even say what the number actually is, and @PFF_College didn’t bother to answer replies on Twitter seeking clarity.) But as a fan of WSU and James Williams, I actually don’t care, especially since this jives with what we know about Williams, who is a special kind of talent:

Next step: Putting one of these guy in the NFL. I have no doubt that’s coming up shortly.


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