Everything clicked for the 12-2 Washington Huskies last season, who dominated opponents by an average score of 42-18 with a smothering defense (three Husky defenders were drafted in the top 45 of the 2017 NFL Draft) and a relentless offense.
Quarterback Jake Browning threw for 43 touchdowns, mainly to receivers John Ross (drafted ninth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals) and Dante Pettis (a rising senior), and running back Myles Gaskin finished his sophomore season by eclipsing 1300 rushing yards and ten touchdowns for the second straight year. Gaskin has been named to the Doak Walker Award Watchlist (for the best running back in the nation) heading into his junior year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him heading to the NFL this season. There’s one more piece to the Washington offense that’s worth mentioning, however: backup running back Lavon Coleman, who is entering his redshirt senior season.
Coleman has spent most of his college career as a special teams stalwart and third down back. In three seasons of play, he’s averaged 95 carries and six receptions per year. However, 2016 was his breakout season – seven special teams tackles and a couple of fumble recoveries got him voted Special Teams MVP. Oh, and he smashed Washington’s single season yards per carry record, with 852 yards on 114 carries, giving him a whopping average of 7.47 yards per attempt.
Speed and vision
Let’s start with this play against Washington State. Handed the ball, Coleman immediately comes face-to-face with a couple of defenders. His center and right guard mostly whiff their blocks, leaving the defensive end and two linebackers straight ahead. Coleman immediately recognizes this and bends his run to the left, earning some space to work. His speed to the edge, along with a last-minute effort by his center to grab the legs of one of the linebackers, gets him to the second level.
From there, Coleman has only one defender to beat. He can’t work back inside, with three others approaching from that way. Instead, he works toward the outside, then plants his legs to straighten out his momentum once he gets past the sticks. That neat footwork along the sidelines earns him a touchdown on the play.
On this next play, we can get a sense of Coleman’s developed vision and patience. He’s running inside against a 4-2-5 nickel look that has the Cougars bringing safety Shalom Luani on a blitz off the left tackle. Coleman keeps his eyes on the middle linebacker and presses the A gap between the center and the guard. As the MLB gets caught in the trash, Coleman sees the right guard driving his own opponent out of the way. Coleman cuts to the right through the newly-opened gap, earning the first down. Those yards were only possible because he was willing to wait for the right gap to open up and because he drew the linebacker into the middle before cutting to an opening.
228 pounds of force
Most of Coleman’s highlights are long runs in which he snakes between defenders to the goal line. But Coleman is listed at 5’11” 228 pounds, and he can bring that heft to meet a defender. When he keeps his pad level low, Coleman can deliver some stout force against his opponents.
In this example, Coleman chips a defensive end, then catches a pass out of the backfield. By dropping his shoulder, he levels the defensive back, who foolishly had hopes of stopping him.
Not all force is delivered via bone crunching hits, though. Coleman’s power is also rooted in a strong, balanced lower body that can run through weaker tackles. Remembering to lower his pad level, Coleman keeps a stable center of gravity and can stumble forward for extra yardage after being tripped up. He has the leg drive to push a small pile of defenders forward, like on this play against Stanford.
Pass protection passivity
While Coleman’s pass catching process is clean, and he does a good job reading levels of defenders on his running plays, a fundamental weakness in his game right now is his pass protection technique. Especially for a player who’s not the primary running back, it’s important that Coleman keep his quarterback clean on the plays for which he does enter the game.
Coleman does a good job of setting up for a block, keeping a wide base, and approaching the defender at the proper angle. But on this play against Stanford, he passively waits for the defender to make contact instead of initiating it with his own punch, and ends up walloped backward into Jake Browning.
A similar play against Arizona State led to a sack situation. For a 228 pound running back, it’s imperative that Coleman develop a passable anchor if he wants to play on third down at the next level.
Possible Bills fit
Barring an injury, expect Coleman to reprise his role as Gaskin’s primary backup this year. When he enters the draft, he’ll probably wind up in the middle rounds of the draft at best — Aaron Jones and Joe Williams territory. The Bills don’t have an immediate need for a running back, with LeSean McCoy starring on the field and Jonathan Williams as the understudy. However, a third down back with special teams experience might be appealing as a back-of-the-roster selection. If Coleman can improve his pass blocking and continue to mature as a runner, he’ll work his way onto the field in the NFL.