The month of January was a busy one for JUCO All-American Justin Crawford. Fresh off a season at Northwest Mississippi CC where he accumulated a nation leading 1,610 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, the NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year was seeing his stock rise quickly.
With already five offers on the table Crawford saw the Mountaineers, Missouri Tigers and South Carolina Gamecocks all make late pushes with each offering the 6-foot, 195-pound running back within the final three weeks leading up to National Signing Day.
A visit to Missouri on Jan. 22 and a planned visit to South Carolina the following weekend meant the probability of the Mountaineers having a chance was slim to none. However, a late-week visit from coach Holgorsen, coach JaJuan Seider and new offensive coordinator Joe Wickline had a lasting impression on Crawford. Soon after, Crawford cancelled his visit to South Carolina and scheduled his final official visit to West Virginia.
Had a good talk with these three cool guys from West Virginia. (OC,RB.C, & HEAD COACH). pic.twitter.com/sEnHNVFhIh
— justin crawford (@datcrawfordboyy) January 26, 2016
Crawford would ultimately commit to the Mountaineers during that visit and later signed his official letter of intent to become a Mountaineer this past Wednesday. But what was it about WVU that intrigued the 4 star running back?
“I started talking to Coach Seider sometime before January. I had been watching some of their games (and) I could see myself in the blue and gold, ” Crawford said of his initial contact and impression of WVU.
There was one more thing too though: “Tavon Austin was a person who I really watched and still do.”
With the relationship with Coach Seider developing and being a fan of Tavon Austin, the Mountaineers started to grow on Crawford. But once the coaches explained to him the experience returning for the Mountaineers offense it seemed like the perfect fit. When asked what helped him determine WVU was his choice Crawford made it clear, it was the opportunity.
“It was the opportunity and the situation I was going to be walking into. At WVU you have a returning quarterback and four out of five lineman returning, and wideouts that have plenty of experience.”
The Mountaineers had to replace very little on the offensive side of the ball returning seven of eleven starters from last season. Slot receiver Jordan Thompson was replaced with 4-star wide receiver Steven Smothers, Marquis Lucas was replaced with JUCO All-American Craig Smith, Cody Clay will be replaced with Trevon Wesco reigning Big 12 rushing champion Wendell Smallwood was replaced with Crawford.
Speaking of Smallwood, the comparisons between the two started before National Signing Day and continued even after, including in Holgorsen’s press conference.
“If you look at Justin Crawford from Northwest Mississippi, he has a lot of Wendell (Smallwood) qualities from a versatility point of view,” Holgorsen said. “He has great vision. He can hit the hole quick. He can make people miss, and he is a good receiver as well.”
The two backs are even similar in stature, Smallwood being 5-foot-10 and 201 pound and Crawford coming in at 6-foot, 195. However, when asked if Crawford had any expectations replacing Smallwood he simply stated, “I only know two things, work hard and ball hard. Everything else will really fall in place.”
Just a month ago redshirt junior Rushel Shell confirmed with BGS that he was returning to WVU, saying, “Yes I’ll be back for my senior year, get my degree and work harder than I ever have.”
With Shell returning, he and Crawford are expected to be the work horses in 2016. And with Holgorsen seemingly sticking to the ground-and-pound offensive scheme that ultimately won the Mountaineers eight games last season, both will see plenty of carries.
Regarding the experience returning for the Mountaineers in 2016, Crawford explained it best, “It is a great thing and it (should) make everything else come easy.”