One of my favorite things about college football are the narratives that precede a season or develop within one. Coaches and fans are looking for identities to build around and season previews need a thread to latch on to. These narratives can be hard to shake and Coach Jim Mastro is creating a new one when it comes to how much production running backs can create in the Air Raid.
Although I am still a little nervous to see how WSU replaces River Cracraft and Gabe Marks in the passing game, every video posted to twitter by a WSU beat writer of a receiver running a great route and beating their defender ups my confidence level ever so slightly. The Air Raid is predicated on simplicity and I have to hope that the passing game will do what it has done. If WSU’s running back trio of James Williams, Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow can replicate or even do a little more than they did last year the Cougs could be primed for a huge year on offense.
However, not everyone is impressed by WSU’s talent at running back.
In the Pac-12 alone, Athlon ranks WSU behind Washington (No. 7), Oregon (8), USC (9), Stanford (20), Arizona State (23), Colorado (28) and Oregon State (29).
The data I used is from cfbstats.com and it looks at the top 50 players in each Power 5 conference in rushing yards to grab as many running backs as possible. It’s filtered from there to focus in only on running backs. It may miss a couple of yards or touchdowns for each team (it doesn’t include Alijah Lee’s touchdown vs Idaho), but it still gives a good window into which teams were producing the most from the running back position.
The below chart is why I have to scratch my head a bit when I look at that Athlon list. By this chart — which looks at total yards and total touchdowns by running backs for each Power 5 team — WSU looks like one of the very best units in the entire nation.
WSU’s running backs accounted for the second most touchdowns of any Power 5 team in the country in 2016, second only to Oklahoma. Yes, you read that right. They were 2nd in receiving yards (only WSU and Ohio State crested 1,000 yards receiving with their running backs), which hopefully helps in recruiting when you have players like Le’Veon Bell touting their pass catching abilities when asking for $16 million per year from the Steelers. WSU was just outside of the top 10 in yards per game (to control for those extra games brought by the playoff) landing at 11th with 203.
Tilt your phone horizontal for a better view or go to this link to open the chart in a new window.
With Taj Griffin moving to wide receiver at Oregon, WSU returns more yards per game than any other running back group in the Pac-12. The Ducks were nipping at the heels of WSU in touchdowns from the position with 27 total, but the gap gets pretty wide after them with a 4 way tie between UW, ASU, Colorado and Oregon State for 3rd, all with 20 touchdowns in 2016. Arizona State may need an asterisk since 8 of those came from Kalen Ballage and his destruction of Texas Tech. Stanford lands behind that quartet with 19, but 16 of those touchdowns came from Christian McCaffrey, who put up a weirdly quiet, but great season for the 10 win Cardinal.
I still can’t quite shake the battered fan in me and really go all in on predicting a huge year for WSU, however, tidbits like these get me close to grand proclamations. While I thought WSU would be up there among the nation’s good teams in running back production, I didn’t expect to see them to be second in touchdowns. With all the returning talent on the offensive line and backfield this offense could be very special. The only grand proclamation I’ll make here is it looks like Coach Mastro and McGuire are due for a raise.