Fear the Reaper: How UW Running Back Richard Newton Rebuilt Himself After Controversial Benching

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The reaper can really run.

But you already knew that. If you watched his redshirt freshman season in Seattle, it was evident. A 6-foot, 215-pound exclamation point from Palmdale, California, he exploded onto the scene in 2019 — recording 498 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry and a team-high 11 touchdowns. He ran with fearlessness and ferocity, with stiff-arms and spin moves and a virtuosic violence. He ran through arm tackles and injuries, through lightning delays and rainstorms and besieged secondaries.

Richard Newton ran.

Until, of course, he couldn't.

Newton — whose gamer tag, "Reaper," also explainRs his running style — rushed for 122 yards, 5.3 yards per carry and two touchdowns in Washington's first two games last fall, culminating in a 54-yard score in a convincing win over Arizona. As Newton hopped over an arm tackle and glided giddily into the end zone, Husky head coach Jimmy Lake sprinted down the sideline — with a single celebratory finger pointed to the sky. Dressed all in black — note the reaper resemblance — Newton raised both arms into the air, turned and belted a guttural growl.

And then, inexplicably, everything was over.

A healthy, available Newton did not play in UW's final two games, for reasons Lake has repeatedly refused to explain. When asked to address the issue Saturday, Newton said simply: "I just felt like I needed to work harder. I wasn't working hard enough. That's what I feel like contributed to that."

And yet, Lake declared this month: "His body looks the best I've ever seen it. He's lean. He looks fast. I'm expecting Rich to have a big year."

Indeed, through nine fall practices, the reaper is running well.

And he's doing so with a vastly different perspective.

"I think a lot of it had to do with everything that was going on, COVID and a shorter season," Newton said, explaining his shifting mindset. "I had to step back and reevaluate what I'm in this for and how hard I should be working to get to where I want to be. (The benching) was kind of like an eye-opener for me."

When asked to elaborate on what specifically fueled his offseason improvements, Newton added: "I guess just not playing, not getting on the field where I feel like I could help. That's probably the worst feeling, feeling like you can contribute but you don't. I think that was the big thing for me. It just made me work a lot harder to get where I want to be. I think I've done that. I've put in the work to get where I want to be."

Where he wants to be, ultimately, is back on the field — starting Sept. 4 against Montana. And to do that, Newton will have to earn carries in a crowded running backs room, which also includes sixth-year seniors Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant; rising redshirt freshman Cameron Davis; second-year freshmen Jay'Veon Sunday and Sam Adams II; and early enrollee freshman Caleb Berry.

Last week, Pleasant called it "the best room I've been in the whole time I've been at Washington."

But Newton isn't intimidated. Instead, he's working to separate himself.

"The mindset that he's taken going through spring ball and in the summer and coming into fall camp has been really special and really noticeable, not only by me but by the other coaches and I think his teammates as well," UW running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. "So when you talk about, 'What does he need to do to continue to take the next step?' I think it's just going to always come down to consistency for him at the position.

"He's a tough runner. He's been getting better in his (pass) protection technique. He knows the plays. So his consistency and staying focused over the long term is really what I'm excited about."

Meanwhile, fans should be excited to once again see No. 6 deliver his brand of balletic brutality.

"My mindset as far as when I have the ball is I never want to make it easy for anyone to tackle me," Newton said. "I want to be the hammer and not the nail. I've always played like this. Not a lot of people are willing to sacrifice their body and glorify their soul. That's something I take pride in when I have the ball: Make the defense feel me."

And, if they can, make the defense catch him. Because, while Newton technically added 5 pounds this offseason, he says an improved diet and dedication to conditioning has yielded improved explosiveness.

"That's what I've been doing this whole offseason, working and trying to get bouncy," he said. "I can always run through the hole and lower my shoulder and be violent. I always have that. But I'm all about evolving my game and making myself better. I'm obsessed with constantly improving. That was one of the things this offseason that I really wanted to work on."

Sitting at a podium Saturday inside Husky Stadium, Newton's demeanor contradicted his chaotic running style. With diamond studs in each ear, he leaned forward, stoic, hands folded and taped, quietly answering each question while radiating a comprehensive calm.

"What I'm most excited about is having fans back in this place," he said.

When that happens, defenses will most certainly feel the reaper.

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