Cougars focus on improving rushing game

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PULLMAN — An accurate gauge of Washington State’s run-game futility last season is provided at the bottom of the national NCAA rushing rankings, where WSU is indicted as the worst rushing team in the country.

Or you can simply listen to offensive line coach Clay McGuire, who was a front-row witness.

“We were awful last year,” McGuire said.

But also, speaking to what he’s seen so far in camp this season: “It’s 100 percent improvement.”

Fellow straight-talker Jim Mastro, the Cougars’ running backs coach, sees a similar uptick.

“We’re light years ahead of where we were a year ago,” Mastro said.

A year ago, the Cougars rushed the ball just 252 times, by far the fewest of any team in the country. They averaged just 1.4 yards per carry and 29.1 yards per game, both marks worse than any other team, though yardage lost on 57 sacks played a role in that figure, too.

Regardless, it was not a strong point. But there is hope that the running game will at least be viable in 2013.

“We’re doing a much better job at the point of attack,” Mastro said. “It’s a drastic change from last year at this point.”

Starters

As of Wednesday afternoon, Mastro said there’s a 3-man race for the Cougars’ starting running back position between sophomore Teondray Caldwell, junior Marcus Mason and third-year sophomore walk-on Jeremiah Laufasa.

Mastro said he’ll know more about how that competition will shake out in 7-10 days.

Caldwell is the team’s leading returning rusher after carrying the ball 56 times last season for 269 yards, start- ingthree of the nine games in which he appeared, and at 5-foot-8, 198 pounds, the sophomore has the kind of speed and shiftiness coach Mike Leach wants from his running backs.

So, too, does Mason, a 5-foot-8, 188-pound speedster who carried the ball only 12 times last season. But he’s taken quite a few reps with the No. 1 offense so far this camp, and figures to see the field regularly once the season begins.

“We’ve been way more straight ahead, doing what we do, no hesitation,” Mason said Wednesday. “Now that we’re more familiar with everything, we don’t really have to think about everything as much. Now we’re all on the same page.”

The third candidate in this race is a surprising one. Laufasa transferred to WSU last season from Central Washington, then was named scout team offensive player of the year.

He was an afterthought when camp began. Not anymore. If the season started today, it’s likely Laufasa would be the team’s go-to back in short yardage situations. He continues during practice to prove his acumen in such circumstances, often finishing drives in the red zone by punching the ball across the goal line.

Mastro compared him to Vai Taua, a former Nevada running back whose bullish style led him to 4,512 career rushing yards.

Leach said Laufasa is “stronger than you’d think, faster than you’d think, plays behind his pads real well and catches the ball well, too. There’s a handful of guys that are significantly better than expected, and he’d be one of them – maybe the one that’s the most improved.”

Of course, any Leach running back must also function as a key cog in the passing game. That wasn’t the case last season, when no Cougar running back had more than 88 receiving yards.

“Last year, sometimes we’d struggle, mainly in seven-on-sevens, missing holes and stuff like that,” Mason said. “Now it’s just been completed balls, completed balls, big plays, things like that. If we just clean up a couple missed balls here or there, then we for sure could be the best passing game in the nation.”

In the mix

Leon Brooks is back for his senior season after serving primarily as the team’s punt returner in 2012, though he did take 12 carries for 78 yards. He seems to have fallen behind the aforementioned top three on the depth chart, though his experience and quickness could come in handy if he’s needed.

Fourth-year junior Theron West also possesses enough speed to turn heads, though he redshirted last season and hasn’t seen many reps in camp this year as he’s battled injuries.

Keep an eye on

Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow, both freshmen, were each impressive at times during WSU’s first scrimmage of camp last week. It would likely take a considerable shuffle for either to see the field this season, but Leach won’t hesitate to play freshmen if he thinks they’ll help the Cougars win a game.

Reason for optimism

Caldwell showed flashes last season – some of them in the kickoff return game – of being capable of big runs. He and Mason each have Pac-12 speed, and a full year in Leach’s system seems to be showing in their practice production. Laufasa’s emergence as a short-yardage back could make the difference between punting and picking up a new set of downs on 3rd-and-short.

Cause for concern

This is still a position of relative inexperience, and the worst rushing offense in the country doesn’t often solve its problems in one offseason.

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