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Originally published August 13, 2011 at 8:00 PM | Page modified August 13, 2011 at 9:22 PM

Perseverance pays off for Huskies star running back Chris Polk

Count the Huskies as blessed that Polk remains in Washington's backfield instead of vying for an NFL job somewhere.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Chris Polk wasn't sure he saw football in his future.

Now, he can't imagine one without it.

Washington's junior running back graduated in June with a degree in American Ethnic Studies/Anthropology. But asked what he'd like to do someday when his playing career ends, he doesn't hesitate.

"Be a coach," he says. "I can't see myself doing something not related to football."

Polk would never have said that in the dark days after the 2008 season. An injury and a coaching change had him seriously debating leaving Washington.

"A couple of years ago I was thinking of not even playing anymore," he said. "But now I'm just blessed to be in the position I am."

Polk shed those doubts as easily as he runs over tacklers and sprints toward some of Washington's most hallowed rushing records.

Count the Huskies as equally blessed that Polk remains in Washington's backfield instead of vying for an NFL job somewhere.

Polk could have declared for the draft after last season. Some analysts said he might have gone as high as the second round.

Instead, he decided to return, poised for a season that could further cement his standing as one of the best running backs in school history.

Polk needs 1,546 yards to surpass Napoleon Kaufman as the school's career leading rusher, and depending on how the season goes, could take aim at Corey Dillon's season record of 1,695. Polk had 1,415 last season.

Yet Polk's goals have little to do with how many yards he gains. "The only numerical goal I have is wins," he says. "I just want to be able to go to a bowl."

Running-backs coach Joel Thomas agrees that Polk isn't driven by numbers.

"I don't think records had anything to do with it," Thomas said of Polk's decision to stay. "I really believe he is enjoying his experience here, enjoying every day."

On and off the field.

Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian sounds like a proud father when he talks about Polk. He says the running back has matured more than any player he inherited when he replaced Tyrone Willingham in December 2008.

"Of all the guys in our time here, I've been most proud of Chris Polk," he said. "Earning his degree and playing the way he has and becoming a leader, it's been pretty cool."

When Sarkisian and his staff arrived, Polk was disillusioned. Regarded by some recruiting analysts as the best high-school running back in the state of California in 2007 at Redlands East Valley High School, he'd famously changed a long-standing commitment to USC a couple months before signing day to align with the Huskies. His mother liked Willingham, and the path to playing time was easier.

Polk started in his first game, at Oregon in 2008, but rushed for just 19 yards on 14 carries as the Huskies were swamped in Eugene. When he hurt his shoulder the next week, he spent the rest of a dreary 0-12 season rehabilitating and wondering why he'd left home.

"When we got here, he had a choice," Thomas said. "He could have bought in or gone his own separate way."

His mother, Edrena, helped convince him to stick it out, though the maturing process still took time.

"There were times he needed to be coached up and reminded about class and things like that," Thomas says.

As he began to have success on the field, however, he also began to take the rest of college more seriously.

Thomas says Polk earned a grade-point average above 3.0 last school year.

"He had the greatest gain in GPA on our team from the previous season, which is pretty cool for a guy that was All-Pac-10, having the season he had," Thomas said.

Polk now talks of possibly staying at UW through the 2012 season and working on a Master's Degree. The NFL is still an option.

"If there's a real decision, I'll sit down with my family and make it," he says of leaving for the NFL after the season. "And if it's the best decision to leave, then I will probably leave. But right now, I'm staying in college."

Thomas says he's worrying only about this season and "finding a way to feed him the ball and keep him fresh as we go week to week."

Indeed, achieving the right balance in using Polk will be critical for the Huskies this season.

Some fans grumbled the first half of last season that Polk sometimes seemed underutilized. He had 20 or more carries just twice in the first nine games. The Huskies started 3-6.

In the last four games, however, he had 107 carries for 685 yards. The Huskies won all four. That stretch was capped by a 34-carry, 177-yard performance in the Holiday Bowl win against Nebraska.

"I can do whatever they ask me," Polk said at Pac-12 media day last month. "If they want me to carry it 30 times a game I can do that. Forty times, 50 times? Yeah, I can do that. ... that's a running back's dream right there."

Sarkisian isn't putting a number on how many carries he wants for Polk, only that it be enough.

"In a perfect world he is getting 20-25 carries, maybe one game he is getting 34 and another 18," Sarkisian said. "But the reality is I've got to make sure he is getting his touches and getting them early in the game because we all know how strong he is late in the game.

"We've got to make sure he is into the flow of the game earlier than we have the last couple of years. The last couple of years there was an emphasis on getting Jake (Locker) into the flow of the game earlier because we felt like that was when he was at his best. Well, now we've got to make sure Chris is at his best for us."

With Locker off to the NFL, Polk is the focal point of the offense. Off the field, that will require Polk to become more of a vocal leader. He thinks he's ready.

"I'm more of a lead-by-example-type guy because I don't believe in people jumping up and down and getting hyped," Polk said. "You should already be hyped because you get to play football. This is what you came here to do. This is your life. You've been playing it since you were 6. So you shouldn't have to have anyone getting you up."

On the field, the attention of defenses will surely turn to stopping Polk first and making new Huskies quarterback Keith Price beat them.

Thomas isn't sure that will matter much.

"There were a lot of yards after contact ... that Chris made happen," he points out. "I like to think there is room for improvement."

Polk thinks there is, saying he's down to about 220 pounds after playing last year at roughly 227. That has left him a little quicker and faster, he says, while still able to handle just as much pounding.

He has also shed any doubts he once had about his decision to come to UW or to stay after that first year.

"When we were losing I was kind of really thinking about my decision and did I make the right decision," he says. "But Coach Sark coming in and turning things around just reassured me the decision I made was right. So I believe in that decision."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Running with the pack

Chris Polk needs 1,546 yards this season to take the top spot among UW's career rushing leaders.

4,106

1

Napoleon Kaufman (1991-94)

3,168

2

Joe Steele (1976-79)

2,903

3

Greg Lewis (1987-90)

2,811

4

Vince Weathersby (1985-88)

2,636

5

Jacque Robinson (1981-84)

2,561

6

Chris Polk (2008-10)

One game at a time
UW's leaders in career rushing yards per game.
Player Avg.
1. Chris Polk 94.9
2. Hugh McElhenny 89.3
3. Napoleon Kaufman 89.3
4. Joe Steele 81.2
5. Greg Lewis 74.4
Note: Corey Dillon averaged 141.3 in his lone season at UW in 1996 but did not play enough games to count on the school's career list.

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