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Huskies eager to get running game back on track
Seattle Times staff reporter
The new coaches entrusted with bringing Washington football back from the dead aren't running from the past.
Instead, they are embracing it — the run and the past.
"When Washington was great for all those years, they could run the football," said new offensive coordinator Tim Lappano, who previously worked at Washington State, California and Oregon State. "I know because I stood on the other sideline and watched it. I know what it was like. That's what we've got to get back to. That's what we want to be. That's what we can be."
It's decidedly not, however, what they've been recently.
Instead, the Huskies — who have led the Pac-10 in rushing more often than any school except USC — have lately wielded a running attack that has carried all the punch of a marshmallow, struggling to develop a consistent offensive line or running back while simultaneously falling in love with the pass.
Consider that a program that had 10 1,000-yard rushers from 1976 to 1997 hasn't had one since.
And that a program that at times averaged 200 yards per game — doing it five seasons from 1987 to 2000 with another three seasons between 189 and 200 — has topped that mark in just five games since the 2000 season.
Lappano, told of the seven-year drought in 1,000-yard rushers — the longest since before Don James became coach — shook his head.
"I can't believe that," he said. "That's unbelievable to me."
The only Pac-10 program with a longer drought is Stanford, which might raise some eyebrows considering new UW coach Tyrone Willingham was the Cardinal's head coach from 1995-2001. But Stanford consistently had solid running attacks under Willingham, leading the Pac-10 in rushing in 2001.
And Willingham has said his plan to "put the bite back in the Dawg" can't happen unless the Huskies can run the ball.
So run, Lappano said, the Huskies will do, be it out of two-back sets — which UW may use more of this year than in past seasons — or one-back. Developing that philosophy, he said, has been an emphasis of spring ball, which concludes April 23 with the annual Purple-White Game.
"I think we need to make a commitment to the run," Lappano says. "The players have to believe in it. The coaching staff has to believe in it. We have other stuff and we will do some of that other stuff. But we are going to be a power-run football team first."
Center Brad Vanneman hears such words and thinks to himself "yes."
"This is what I wanted to hear," Vanneman said. "He says he wants to use the run as the base for our offense and that's what we are going to do."
Vanneman, though, also acknowledges that the Huskies said much the same thing the past two years under ex-coach Keith Gilbertson, who also talked often of reviving the running tradition.
"It's not a new concept for us," Vanneman said.
But he said it feels a little different this time. "There's more attention to the little things now," he said. "Footwork, pad level, assignments. All the things that go into being a successful running team."
Running backs, meanwhile, say they have heard enough about the 1,000-yard rusher drought and vow it will end soon.
"Before I leave here that's going to be accomplished," said junior Kenny James, who started 10 games last season. "That's something that's been stuck in my mind for a long time and I think we have the line and the right mindset to get it done this year."
Maybe. But Lappano says he sees more of a "tailback-by-committee" approach working best with this team, which could make an individual 1,000-yard season unlikely.
"We don't have a back who can carry it 30 times a game — not many programs do," Lappano said. "But we have some good backs, three or four quality backs that we can win with in the Pac-10. But they are all going to play and they all know that."
The big winner in that scenario could be sophomore Louis Rankin, who has drawn raves for his play in spring ball.
Lappano says Rankin has gotten much of the work in spring in part because coaches want to evaluate him properly — he had just nine carries last season which meant there wasn't a lot of film of him to watch.
Rankin was the third-team tailback a year ago but seemed to fall out of favor as the season wore on — he had just two carries in the last seven games. Most vexing was the Apple Cup, when Rankin didn't play, even though James and Shelton Sampson were sidelined. Coaches instead moved fullback James Sims to tailback.
James and Sampson, meanwhile, had their issues a year ago that serve as fuel now. James had just 232 of his team-high 702 yards in the last six games while Sampson lost fumbles, cutting his playing time.
Lappano also sounds excited about the potential of 280-pound Johnie Kirton, who remains at tailback for now despite the possibility of a move to fullback or tight end.
"He has to learn to bend his knees and get his pad level down," Lappano said. "But that is a weapon on the short-yardage if we can get him right with his size and power. He needs some work but he's young. He'll be all right."
Just as, he promises, the running game itself will be some day.
"We are committed right now to making this team physical," Lappano said. "When people come into this stadium, they are going to leave this stadium hurt. It's going to be a physical team."
Vanneman, for one, is running out of patience. A fifth-year senior, he came to UW in the shadows of that 2000 season, the last time the Huskies ran well.
"You look back to how they ran the ball before and try to model yourself after that, and not being able to that, whether it be scheme or personnel or whatever, is frustrating," Vanneman said. "But I finally feel we are starting to get our swagger back as far as running the ball and looking to put the hammer down on people and say, 'this is what we are going to do. Try and stop it.' "
• Willingham said he thinks the NCAA will soon approve adding a 12th game beginning with the 2006 season and he is in favor of the Pac-10 responding by adding a ninth conference game, meaning every team would play every other team. As it stands now, teams play eight conference games, skipping one team every year. Willingham said having an uneven home-and-road conference schedule — half the teams would play five home games and four road and vice versa — is worth it so that everybody plays everybody. "It's part of raising the bar," he said.
• An Isaiah Stanback touchdown pass Saturday credited as being caught by J.R. Wolfork was actually caught by Chris Rohrbach.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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