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Originally published December 25, 2011 at 8:02 PM | Page modified December 25, 2011 at 8:14 PM

Washington might have to decide quickly who will replace Chris Polk

The Huskies' best back could opt early for the NFL draft, leaving Jesse Callier, Bishop Sankey and injured players Deontae Cooper and Johri Fogerson, among others, to try and fill the void.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It's a trivia question with an answer that probably isn't all that hard for Washington fans to guess: Who is the only player to have started every game during the three-year Steve Sarkisian era?

The correct answer — tailback Chris Polk — is also the subject of one of the biggest questions for the Huskies going forward. Specifically, will Polk — a fourth-year junior who many figure will declare for the NFL draft — be around in 2012?

The conventional wisdom is no, though Polk insisted when he met with reporters earlier this month that he had yet to think about his decision and wouldn't until after Thursday's Alamo Bowl game with Baylor in San Antonio.

It's a question UW coaches also want to avoid for now.

"Until we know otherwise, I'm just thinking about Baylor and running the ball with No. 1 (Polk)," said UW running-backs coach Joel Thomas.

Should Polk leave, though, the question then becomes how UW will replace him.

Polk has been a comforting rock of stability for the Huskies since Sarkisian took over before the 2009 season, starting all 37 games at tailback, rushing for 100 or more yards in 20 of those games, and 1,000 or more yards in all three seasons.

He has been so solid there has hardly been a reason to take him off the field — he has 263 carries this year, third-most in UW history, and had 260 in 2010, fourth-most.

That hasn't left a lot of carries for backups Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey.

Callier, a sophomore, has 264 yards on 45 attempts this year, compared to 433 yards on 77 carries in 2010.

Thomas, though, says the lack of carries is solely a nod to Polk's ability and that Callier "would obviously get the first crack (to replace Polk) because he's had the most experience and has done a nice job." Callier, in fact, has averaged 5.9 yards.

Sankey, meanwhile, has an even gaudier average, though in more limited carries, gaining 6.7 yards per attempt on 28 tries, and gaining 167 yards overall. That includes 71 yards on eight carries against Colorado.

Sarkisian says the Huskies might ideally have redshirted Sankey, a true freshman from Gonzaga Prep, but had little choice but to play him after Deontae Cooper suffered another ACL injury in the offseason.

Sankey says he doesn't regret playing this year.

"No, I wanted to play," he said. "I think any freshman wants to play right away, so I was happy. It was a fun experience to be able to come out and play your first year."

His season got off to a rocky start with a fumble on a kickoff against Nebraska that led to a Cornhuskers touchdown during UW's disastrous third quarter.

But, said Sankey, "I was able to overcome that pretty quickly and move on from it."

Sarkisian says he thinks Sankey will be that much better positioned to earn serious playing time after a full offseason in UW's strength and conditioning program.

"He's a physical runner and has a great burst and he's shown a willingness to pass protect," Sarkisian said. "We obviously have to work on the technique side (of blocking). But I think he's got a bright future."

Sarkisian says the depth at the position will be just fine if Cooper and Johri Fogerson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the California game, return.

Cooper was the second-leading rusher in the state of California in 2009 (behind only Callier) before suffering a knee injury before the 2010 season, and then again last offseason.

Fogerson, an O'Dea High grad, had returned from missing most of 2010 with a hip injury to again work his way into spot duty before being hurt against Cal — he's expected to receive a medical redshirt and return in 2012.

Sarkisian and Thomas say each appears on track to return for fall camp, though it's still too early to definitively say.

"The reports I've gotten is we will have them," Thomas said. "There is a chance they could rehab sooner and there is a chance they could have setbacks — that is the nature of injuries. But hopefully it continues to stay on pace and we will be able to go through camp with them and have a good shot to find out where we are at."

Thomas also raves about the progress of the one scholarship running back that redshirted this year, Dezden Petty, a 5-11, 214-pounder who projects more as a fullback.

"From August to now, he's improved 100 percent," Thomas said.

Washington also has commitments for the Class of 2012 from two high-school running backs — Tairen Owens of Muir High in Pasadena, Calif., and Erich Wilson of Junipero Serra in San Mateo, Calif.

The Huskies are also waiting on a decision from KeiVarae Russell from Mariner High in Everett, regarded as the best running back prospect in the state of Washington this year. Russell has said he will decide Wednesday or Thursday where he will go to college, having narrowed his choices to UW and Notre Dame.

For at least one more game, though, it's a question UW doesn't yet have to answer.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @bcondotta.

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