For a team often ridiculed for its lack of rushing attack and overall desire to run, Washington State has a nice stable of running backs. Sure, the overall rushing numbers still aren't very pretty, but that's mostly because the NCAA is behind the times and deducts quarterback sacks from rushing totals. If you remove those, WSU was actually quite productive on the ground and could be even better next year.
Here's a look at where things stand in the back field.
Current depth chart:
Scholarship athletes: Marcus Mason (SR), Theron West (RSR), Teondray Caldwell (JR), Gerard Wicks (RFR), Jamal Morrow (RFR)
Walk-ons: Jeremiah Laufasa (RJR), Parker Henry (RSO)
Projected depth chart:
Starter - Mason
Backup - Caldwell
Third string - Laufasa, West, Wicks, Morrow
Mason sits atop the projected depth chart following a breakout junior season. He went from a non-factor to a major contributor both in the running game and as a receiver. With all of WSU's receivers, it's easy to forget about Mason, but he led the team in yards from scrimmage last season. Although some of the other running backs on the depth chart may have more athletic ability, after selling Mason short at the start of last season, I'm not making that same mistake twice. If he is the same player he was last year, he'll be a significant contributor again this season. If he improves, he could be among the more productive running backs in the conference.
Even if Mason leads the way, he won't be the only major contributor. Caldwell should see considerable playing time too. He wasn't as effective as a receiver as Mason was last year, but led the team by averaging 5.4 yards per carry. There were some fumble issues -- as you might remember -- which could cost him playing time if they continue.
The competition behind Mason and Caldwell should be fierce with Wicks and Morrow coming off redshirt seasons. They'll battle for playing time with Laufasa and West. Laufasa proved to be an excellent short yardage option last year. West is an interesting player. After minimal offensive contributions during the first 12 games, he burst onto the scene in the New Mexico Bowl. He racked up 67 yards on six touches in that game. Was it an anomaly or a sign of things to come?
Wicks and Morrow both came to WSU as 3-star prospects. Morrow bounced around a bit as a freshman, going from running back to defensive back and eventually back to running back. Both players could see playing time in 2014, but it will be a challenge to beat out the established depth above them.
Squally Canada, Milpitas, Calif.
Canada is one of my favorite recruits in the 2014 class. As a runner, he's the complete package. Physical, good vision, enough speed, agile. He may not be Marshawn Lynch, but he is a really hard guy to tackle. Canada is really good in traffic, using quick feet and agility to make defenders miss. That is an aspect WSU has lacked in recent seasons. Sure, the blocking hasn't always been great, but WSU running backs haven't helped by going down on first contact. They were much better last season and Canada appears to have that ability too.
There is more to playing running back at WSU than just running the football. Canada will need to block and catch the ball well. His Hudl highlights don't show him doing much of either. A 3-star prospect according to Rivals, Canada committed to WSU over offers from Boise State, Colorado, Oregon State and others.
WSU didn't offer very many running backs this cycle and stopped recruiting the position when Canada committed.
Cougar running backs combined for 821 rushing yards last season and I would expect that number to go up this season. Not because WSU will throw less, but because the offense as a whole should be better. That will lead to more first downs, more plays and more rushing attempts.
I don't think we'll see major personnel changes from last season. Mason and Caldwell should combine to get the vast majority of touches. They combined for 81 percent of running back touches last season. Barring injury I would expect them to be in the 75 percent range this season.
With veterans at the top of the roster, it would be a surprise to see any of the underclassmen play a major role. Wicks and Morrow may see a couple touches early in the season. Canada would have to light the world on fire from Day 1 to avoid a redshirt season.
The wildcard in 2014 is West. He oozed athleticism in the New Mexico Bowl, making defenders miss and showing off his speed. Based on those six plays, you might expect him to play a much bigger role next season. The problem is, he had that same ability all season and touched the ball once. I do think he'll play more next season, likely cutting into Laufasa's playing time some and also getting a few of Caldwell and Mason's snaps. It will be very interesting to see the rotation during spring football and fall camp.
We still don't know how Canada, Wicks and Morrow will fare at the Pac-12 level, but WSU appears to be in very good shape at running back in 2014 and is positioned well for the future.