By Trevor Williams
As the Washington State running backs wrapped up ball carrying drills following a practice last week, it was easy to forget that at this time last year, two of Cougars’ budding rushers were preparing for high school proms and graduations.
While standing next to the Cougars’ two youngest running backs, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks, running backs coach Jim Mastro took one look at the pair and said, “They’re so much further along than most freshmen are. You can look at them and they’re so big, fast and strong. Usually the thing that holds high school kids back is they physically can’t do it yet. These two guys can and that’s why they’re in the mix so fast.”
Fast is an accurate descriptor of Morrow and Wick’s rise in the running back race at Washington State. The two freshmen are coming off an outstanding redshirt season in which they stood out on the scout team. Now they find themselves receiving reps with the first and second teams.
“It’s just fun,” said Morrow. “After sitting out a year on the scout team to be back playing against the guys now - it’s been great. It’s just a good feeling to have the competition out here every day with the five running backs.”
Competition has been a driving force for Morrow and Wicks since setting foot on campus.
“Every day I come out here and compete,” said Wicks. “It’s not like high school anymore where there’s just one guy. We’ve got five guys who can play, so every day you have to come out prepared to play each play.”
The mentality employed by Morrow and Wicks can be found in every Cougar running back. Teondray Caldwell, Marcus Mason and Theron West make up the rest of the Cougars’ backfield and bring plenty of intensity and experience from last year. The energy has left its impact on Wicks and Morrow and influences the entire running game on the Palouse.
“It took us two years to get to this point,” said Coach Mastro. “Competition is everything. If you have competition behind you, you’re going to play harder and if you don’t have competition behind you, you get complacent.”
Fittingly, Morrow and Wicks were anything but complacent during their redshirt season. The pair turned heads throughout the season on the scout team and both Wicks and Morrow brought their talents to WSU’s famed Thursday Night Football, a full-contact scrimmage between players deeper on the Cougars’ depth chart.
“Thursday Night Football is where they shined,” said Coach Mastro. “Sometimes players think that’s just a practice, but it’s not. We evaluate that and it was clear to us after last season that these guys would be in the mix the next year.”
Mastro knew he could count on Wicks and Morrow to show up every other day of the week as well.
“It wasn’t just because of what they did during Thursday Night Football, but because of what they did on the scout team last year,” he said. “That’s tough duty and they did it all year long and did it well. That’s why they are where they are now.”
Morrow particularly shone on the scout team last year, earning the honor of Scout Team Player of the Year at the end of the season.
“That’s when I really became more comfortable in the offense,” he said. “After one, I started to understand things better, everything became faster and everything became more comfortable.”
Wicks and Morrow had no problem picking up the pace in practice, but they were able to drop the hammer when needed as well.
“It was great because the defense can’t just focus in on either of us; they have to focus on both of us,” said Wicks. “We’re both different backs. He’s (Jamal) shiftier. He can get by you and he can catch. I’m more of a downhill punisher, so it’s like a thunder and lightning attack.”
It didn’t take long for the Cougar tandem to forge their connection in Pullman.
“When we came in we were both freshmen and didn’t know anything so we could talk to each other and help each other out with different plays,” said Morrow. “It was more comforting because coming in we had someone to look out for each of us.”
Morrow and Wicks also agreed that the guidance of the other three running backs in the Cougars’ rotation has been invaluable in shaping them into the players they are.
“I learn something new every day from Teondray, Theron and Marcus,” said Wicks. “We’re all different types of running backs which is interesting as well. Every time each one of us makes a big play we are running over to each other and congratulating each other. It’s really fun playing with these five guys.”
The connection that the Cougar running backs have established spreads throughout the entire team as well.
“Off the field we are always with each other and you’ll never really catch us by ourselves or without our teammates,” said Morrow. “So, if we have that family atmosphere outside, when we come in to the field of battle we all know we have each other’s backs.”
If you ask Wicks, when he, Morrow and the Cougs lace up their cleats and run out of the tunnel at Martin Stadium next season, opponents will need to be prepared for a tight knit team that comes with a little bit of thunder and lightning.
“We pushed each other each day and it was high hopes for us on the scout team last year,” he said. “Every time we played together on Thursdays, it was he and I making big play after big play.”
This year, Wicks and Morrow will hope to help the Cougars make big play after big play on Saturdays.