BY Todd Dybas 10:02PM 08/08/2011

Dybas: Polk runs through ragged reputation

After the 2008 season, Washington running back Chris Polk didn’t know what was next. Neither did the new Washington coaches. Instead of a mess, Polk filled the record books.

Washington running back Chris Polk is on his way to a second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

Washington running back Chris Polk nearly quit football after 2008. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

Talented, soft, unmotivated, out of shape. That was the reputation of Washington running back Chris Polk at the end of abysmal 2008.

It wasn’t just message board chatter. That’s what the new Washington coaches were being told about Polk.

In 2009, when head coach Steve Sarkisian and his emissaries swept into Washington, Polk was thinking about zipping out.

After a recruiting dalliance out of East Valley High School (Calif.) with USC — Sarkisian, then a Trojans assistant, tried to secure Polk’s services  — Polk chose Washington. There was backlash in befuddled backchannels.

Polk was Washington’s starting tailback for two games in 2008 before needing season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. He watched the carnage of 0-12 from under a medical redshirt.

That’s when the labeling began. His freshman-year injury amplified the speculation that he couldn’t hack it.

Polk began to wonder the same.

“When I was hurt, I honestly didn’t see myself playing football,” Polk said Monday, the first day of the Huskies’ fall camp. “I honestly thought I was going to give up.”

Polk’s mother, Edrena, gave him some mental kicks in the pants. But it was the turnover of the Huskies’ coaching staff that jolted Polk, prior to his successive 1,000-yard-plus years in his first two full seasons — the first Huskies back to accomplish that.

Running backs coach Joel Thomas came from Purdue with no knowledge of Polk. The Boilermakers didn’t bother recruiting the West Coast. To him, Polk was one of eight backs of which he had only an outline.

“The rap we got was very talented ball player, wasn’t physical and wasn’t good at hanging on to the ball,” Thomas said.

Sarkisian was aware of what Polk could be. The staff vowed to be relentless with Polk in order to keep him from sliding back into a malaise.

In the 2009 opener against LSU, Polk ran for 90 yards. Two weeks later, Washington upset USC and Polk had 71 yards, but nearly all came after initial contact. Reputation reversed. Attitude reversed.

“I think it’s in (the player) somewhere, it’s our job as coaches to kind of bring that out,” Thomas said. “I think the change of scenery within the culture of our program, that has benefited him tremendously.

“It’s almost like a blood transfusion. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way at all. He needed that.”

Polk now runs at ramming speed, the nancypants reputation long discarded.

He’s down to 220 pounds, about seven short of last season’s total, to be more elusive in his redshirt junior season. Since he stayed, skipping the NFL draft, and Jake Locker graduated, Polk is the offensive core.

Focus for him turns to “getting vertical” in football’s English-mangling parlance. Polk expects to be more elusive this season, turning 30-yard gains into 70-yard touchdowns. He’s worked on better use of his hands, plus reading the converging secondary to determine bad angles for them and swift routes for himself.

Gathered in the meeting room Sunday night, Polk talked with Thomas about the paper in the future. Polk has just one quarter remaining before he graduates. According to Thomas, Polk carried more than a 3.0 GPA last year. If Washington makes a bowl game, Polk will already have his degree.

“Three years ago, I don’t know if that was in his vision,” Thomas said.

Now, Napoleon Kaufman is. Washington’s all-time leading rusher is 1,545 yards in front of Polk, sixth on the list. Polk’s 1,415 net yards in 2010 was the second-best total among Washington running backs. Only Corey Dillon (1,695) had more, and needed 51 more carries to do it.

It’s difficult to see breaking Dillon’s record as enough allure for Polk to return for his senior season. He should have his degree, a stable spot in Huskies lore, and pending green paper from the NFL.

Though he contends he won’t be satisfied until he “masters” his craft.

“I want to be the best that ever did it,” Polk said.

That’s a decided change from a near never was.


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