With all the hype surrounding Jake Locker since his arrival at Montlake, it is easy to forget the production of redshirt freshman Chris Polk.
Polk, who is trying to become Washington’s second 1,000-yard rusher in the last decade, has been a steady performer and a bright spot for this 2009 team.
After starting his career with a rough game against Oregon, Polk was promptly injured in his second career game and forced to sit the rest of the season. While it was a tough period for Polk, who had never been seriously injured before, it took him away from a team that ended up finishing the year winless.
Helplessly sitting on the sidelines while his teammates struggled on the field and were divided in the locker room, Polk wondered if he was really meant to play football.
In a stroke of good luck Polk was granted a medical redshirt year and was able to begin 2009 with four years of eligibility remaining, a new coaching staff, and a new lease on life. It did not turn out to be a brand-new coaching staff for Polk, however, as Steve Sarkisian had recruited him while coaching at Southern California.
That comfort level, along with being healthy once again, gave Polk renewed motivation to return to the field and continue being the game-changing running back he has always been capable of being.
A game-changing back is something the Huskies have been missing for some time. In the last decade Washington has produced only one 1,000-yard rusher, Louis Rankin, who also had the benefit of Jake Locker running a simple strategy—see if my wideout is open; if not, RUN—that netted Locker nearly 1,000 yards on the year himself.
Despite not having the benefit of a productive second leading rusher, Polk has put up impressive numbers and still has the ability to reach the 1,000-yard mark this season. A quick look at the stats from Rankin’s 2007 season and Polk’s 2009 season thus far shows a similarity in production, despite the difference in offensive styles.
In 2007, through 10 games Rankin had 853 yards at five yards per carry. The statistic that jumps out at you is the four games where he produced less than 50 yards on the ground. A good chunk of yards was contributed in the first game, where he had 147 yards, and the ninth game, where he produced 255 yards on the ground.
Compare that to Polk, who has had the benefit of being the man when it comes to running the ball and has managed 889 yards so far at an identical five yards per rush. While Polk has never had a game with 36 rushing attempts like Rankin, he has been far more consistent in his production, with only two games either at or below the 50-yard mark.
Despite the lack of another rushing threat this year, Polk has only managed 11 more carries and has been just as productive as Rankin was. Rankin was able to make it over the 1,000-yard mark in 12 games, but he did play a 13-game season, which added to his final numbers.
If Polk’s production is consistent in the last two games, he should reach the 1,000-yard mark with a projected 1,067 yards on 215 carries.
Another factor to consider in his quest for 1,000 is the game against WSU, where he could see a large number of carries—probably not anything like Rankin’s 36-carry effort, but in the high 20s is reasonable to expect.
The difference in offensive philosophy has both benefited and hurt Polk somewhat. While he is getting the bulk of the carries, he is the only threat rushing the ball this year. While Locker has the speed and talent to be a 1,000-yard rusher at the quarterback position, Sarkisian and his staff feel is it more important to improve Jake’s skill as a drop-back passer.
It has been a consistent struggle for both the coaching staff and Locker to find the right balance, and as we have progressed into the year, Jake has become more and more hesitant to run, instead using his speed to try to extend a play for his wideouts to get open. That has led to Polk facing defenses that know he is going to be running at them, and he is still producing anyway.
Chris has shown a lot of flashes that he has the ability to be a big-time playmaker for Washington at the tailback position. With his first year here being a wash, this has been an impressive freshman season for Polk. Expect him to improve even more going into next year, and Husky fans should enjoy his physical running style for at least two more years.
When the offensive line develops and gets depth, this special back we are watching could put up one monster of a season that awakens the echoes of Napoleon Kaufman, Corey Dillon, and other great Washington tailbacks of the past.