With spring practice having concluded with the 2015 Gold-Blue Game in Morgantown last Saturday BlueGoldSports’ Data Analyst and Senior Writer Mark Fought breaks down each WVU football position group going into the long days of waiting for fall practice to begin. Today, the running backs.
In its 2014 post-spring practice rankings of Big 12 running back corps ESPN gave WVU top billing going into fall practice. The quintet of (alphabetically by last name) Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison, Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith included 2011’s leading rusher (Garrison, 742 yards) and 2012’s leading rusher (Buie, 851 yards).
In total, that quintet brought 2,706 yards gained into the 2014 season. The Mountaineers would go on to rush for 2,376 yards – all but 91 of them by the five featured backs, led by Shell’s 788 yards and followed closely by Smallwood’s 722. Following the conclusion of last season both Garrison and Buie elected to pursue their final years of eligibility elsewhere.
While the yardage total put up by Mountaineer backs in 2014 was respectable (tied for the 21st highest single season rushing yardage total in school history) it was good enough for just fourth place in the Big 12 last year, behind Oklahoma’s 3,395 yards (led by sensational freshman Samaje Perine’s 1,713 yards, including an NCAA record 427 against Kansas), Baylor’s 2,802 yards and TCU’s 2,689 yards.
It was, however, the highest rushing yardage total of the Holgorsen era at WVU. In fact, the percentage of running plays has increased every year at WVU under Holgorsen, from 42.9 percent in 2011, to 45.6 percent in 2012, to 47.3 percent in 2013 to last year’s 51.2 percent.
That trend would indicate that Holgorsen, commonly regarded as a passing guru, has developed a deeper appreciation for the running game as his WVU head coaching tenure has unfolded and is placing increasing emphasis on utilization of the ground attack.
Without a running back recruit in the 2015 recruiting class (which creates a “must” recruiting situation for 2016 at that position) all of the 2015 West Virginia rushers have spent at least a year in the program (including redshirted freshmen Jacky Marcellus and Donte Thomas-Williams). The 2015 WVU rushers will include Shell, Smallwood, Marcellus, Thomas-Williams and Elijah Wellman.
The “wild card” in the equation is William Crest, who until last Saturday’s Gold-Blue game was thought to be dedicated to competing for the starting quarterback position with Skylar Howard. With Crest having lined up in the backfield in the Gold-Blue game there may well be a sixth back to join the stable in 2015, although it is likely that Crest would see only a minimum number of snaps at running back.
Could another player be converted to running back in fall camp? Should the injury bug bite WVU hard the coaches would have no choice but to do just that, but barring a freakish rash of injuries the five (or should it be six?) players just mentioned will constitute the 2015 WVU rushing corps.
Will any of WVU’s 2015 fleet of running backs become the 14th Mountaineer all-time to surpass the 1,000-yard barrier? With Holgorsen appearing to favor a “fresh set of legs” approach in utilizing all of the stable at one point or another and avoiding the “workhouse” approach, i.e., relying primarily on one back to carry the load, only two players appear to be likely candidates to hit four digits in rushing – Shell and Smallwood.
Let’s take a look at each back individually and conjecture an analysis of how Holgorsen and running backs Coach JuJuan Seider will use their available talents in the fall:
Shell could justifiably be called one of the greatest high school running backs in history, having finished his career at Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, PA as the leading rusher in WPIAL and Pennsylvania state history with 9,078 yards.
Shell set a national record by rushing for 100 or more yards in 39 consecutive games (breaking the record held by legendary Oklahoma speedster Billy Sims) and had 25 200-plus yard rushing games in his illustrious prep career. He was ranked as the 4th best running back in America by Scout.com coming out of high school.
After his freshman year at “that school up north”, Shell left that program for Morgantown and enjoyed a solid although unspectacular 2014 season, leading the Mountaineers in rushing.
Shell proved to be susceptible to injury and missed all or parts of several games in 2014, which limited his effectiveness. His longest gain was a 54-yard romp against Iowa State. He ended up averaging 4.5 yards per carry in 2014 which, ironically, was identical to that of his freshman season at “that school up north”.
Can Shell become the powerful, strong-willed runner on the Division 1 level that terrorized WPIAL opponents in his high school days? WVU’s coaches challenged the Pittsburgh native to find that same level of energy and will this spring.
Shell didn’t amaze the coaches and reach up to grab the brass ring in this year’s spring drills, but he was not a major disappointment, either. He will likely be the first tailback in single back sets when the first WVU offensive snaps against Georgia Southern take place on September 5th.
Shell needs to work on yards-after-contact and catching the ball out of the backfield to round out his repertoire of skills. He has the frame at 5’-10” and 220 pounds to take hits and keep on going. If he can do so consistently – a key element the coaches are hoping to see him develop – he could have a season similar to that of former one-year Mountaineer Charles Sims in 2013. Shell unquestionably has the talent to become a 1,000-yard rusher and if he can put up that kind of performance in 2015 it will open up the WVU offense that much more.
Mountaineer fans saw flashes of brilliance from Smallwood in 2014 – mostly away from Mountaineer Field. The junior rushed for 123 yards on 15 carries against Texas Tech in Lubbock, 134 yards on 23 carries against Oklahoma State in Stillwater and 77 yards on just 8 carries in the 2014 Liberty Bowl.
In the post-Gold-Blue Game press conference Holgorsen described Smallwood as WVU’s most dynamic player and its fastest player. Smallwood also reportedly had a very good spring, although he was held out of the Gold-Blue Game due to a non-serious injury.
The coaches would love to use Smallwood in the same type of hybrid slot receiver/running back combination as Tavon Austin was used in 2012. While expecting anyone to live up to a comparison to Austin is simply unfair, Smallwood has the speed and pass catching skills to be used effectively in a variety of ways.
He will never be confused as a power back with a 5’-11” 200-pound frame, but he has the tools to create match-up nightmares for defensive coordinators in open space and WVU coaches hope to deploy him in that type of a role this fall.
Consistency is a key for Smallwood in 2015. Can he sustain the level of performance he exhibited on the road in 2014 throughout an entire season? Can he cause WVU fans to conjure up images of Austin? Can he and Shell form a lethal one-two backfield punch? Mountaineer fans certainly hope so.
Wellman is a 6’-2”, 232-pound redshirt sophomore who may be called upon in short yardage situations in 2015. The Huntington, WV product saw the field in 12 games last year with just 4 yards on 2 carries, along with 4 receptions for 11 yards.
Wellman will be called upon as a road grader to plow a clear path for the tailback – a chore for which Wellman has both the build and the attitude to excel. However, as was evident in the season opener in 2014 against Alabama (although the pass was just out of his reach) Wellman can provide a viable pass catching option when other downfield options are not open.
Wellman likely will not receive more than a dozen or so carries in 2015, but his value as a blocker and as an option in the flat could be quite valuable. If Shell and/or Smallwood have a big year it may be attributable, in large part, to Wellman blasting linebackers and safeties out of the way.
It is a role that doesn’t show up on the stats sheet at the end of a game, but it is a large contribution to a running game’s overall success or failure, and it will be highly praised in the WVU film room.
“DTW” is a 6’-1”, 225-pound redshirt freshman from Durham, NC’s Hillside High School and was a 4-star recruit as ranked by most recruiting services coming out of high school. Mountaineer fans have been quite anxious to see the heralded recruit on the field following his redshirt year and the scrimmages in Shepherdstown, at The Greenbrier and in the Gold-Blue Game should have WVU fans excited.
Thomas-Williams exhibited a strong-willed running style, often breaking tackles or carrying tacklers for several yards after contact. He also showed good cutting ability in the open field. He additionally has a quick burst, as evidenced by busting through for a long touchdown run in The Greenbrier scrimmage.
Like any freshman “DTW” will need to become better versed in the offensive scheme, work on ball security and on the non-carrying aspects of the game – blocking, decoying, etc. – but the raw talent appears to be there for Thomas-Williams to become a very exciting addition to the Mountaineer backfield.
Marcellus was converted to running back from slot receiver to provide depth at the position due to the transfers of Garrison and Buie and the lack of true freshman reinforcements coming into the fold in August.
At 5’-8” and 175 pounds he is more in the scatback mold than that of a power runner. In the practices open to the public Marcellus appeared to be tentative at times, which is certainly understandable given his newness to the position.
However, he showed decent open field running ability and, for his size, surprising strength in situations where he was met by multiple defenders. Unlike Thomas-Williams, who at least had a year in the system at the same position, Marcellus has the positional learning curve to absorb, which will put him at a disadvantage versus his redshirt freshman counterpart, at least initially. However, as Holgorsen has noted, Marcellus’ move to the backfield is permanent, so pencil him in as one of the five running backs that WVU will likely utilize in 2015.
In summary, Shell and Smallwood will be counted upon to carry much of the Mountaineer running load in 2015, while Smallwood will be used in more of a variety of ways. Thomas-Williams and Marcellus will get carries in select situations and Wellman may get a few more carries in ’15 than in ’14 but will be asked to provide muscle and brawn to break his backfield mates loose.
Will the trend of increased rushing opportunities under Holgorsen continue this coming season? Ask any of the five players described above and the answer will most likely be, “Yes!”