MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood certainly knows what rock bottom is.
The junior running back found himself in a Delaware jail cell in the summer of 2014 following witness intimidation charges. The charges were later dropped, but the negative events in his personal life caused question marks to loom as to whether he could be successful and productive when his sophomore season arrived.
Since, Smallwood has developed into one of the most explosive players on the Mountaineers’ offense. As a sophomore, he rushed for over 700 yards on 148 attempts which was second statistically on West Virginia’s stacked running back rotation that included the talents of Dreamius Smith, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie.
Now a junior, Smallwood has become the center of Dana Holgorsen’s offense.
Smallwood kicked off the 2015 season with an impressive 331 yards and four touchdowns in West Virginia’s three-game non-conference schedule. But as the Big 12 slate of the schedule threw a right punch at the Mountaineers, Smallwood suffered a sprained ankle.
Many fans believed that was the end of a possibly successful run game for 2015, but a hungry Smallwood refused to allow an injury to keep him off the playing field.
Though it put him out of practice for nearly two weeks and in physical therapy for a month, he continued to thrive on game day. Against Oklahoma State (with a heavily taped ankle), Smallwood ran for 147 yards on 19 carries. He followed that up against Baylor (still with a heavily taped ankle) with 89 yards on 12 carries.
“The kid is mentally tough as well as physically tough,” said running backs coach JuJuan Seider. “He can tolerate more pain than probably anybody on the team. He can play through adversity. I wish he’d speak up more cause I think guys will respond to him. If you want one thing to improve out of him, it’s to get a little pissed off every now and then and challenge guys.”
And after losing four-straight games, that’s exactly what Smallwood did.
“I think it’s really high right now,” Smallwood said regarding the sense of urgency in the locker room following a loss to TCU. “Especially coming off of four losses straight and having a bad October, I think guys are trying to rally together and figure out what we can do to win a few games.”
Smallwood followed up by stating that he’d love to just run the ball the whole entire game against the Mountaineers’ next opponent, Texas Tech.
“It might be boring for the fans, but as long as it’s working for us and we’re getting it going, I won’t mind it,” he said.
It was almost like Smallwood was predicting the future.
Against the Red Raiders, Smallwood put up 163 yards and a touchdown on just 22 carries. He wasn’t the only one having success in the backfield, though. Redshirt junior Rushel Shell nabbed his first 100-yard performance of the season, rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries.
“I thought we could run the ball more even when it was working and we were behind the chains, I thought we still should have ran it a lot more, but it worked out,” said Smallwood following the game. “The guys were dialed in. Even when something went wrong, they came up to me and let me know what was going on and how the defensive front was moving. I thought everybody was dialed in and focused on our assignment and we had success with it.”
It’s safe to say Smallwood and Shell’s success has converted a struggling West Virginia pass offense into a run-first offense, at least for the remainder of this season.
“I think you have to continue to evolve a little bit and that’s the area I wanted to evolve in,” said Holgorsen. “Again, without going through exactly how everything’s transpired over the last six years, I wanted to do something a little bit different than everyone else in the league. Now, we have to continue to get better at it.”
Senior wide receiver Jordan Thompson also chimed in on Smallwood’s success.
“In the past, we haven’t had great running backs like we have in Wendell (Smallwood) and Rushel (Shell),” said Thompson. “Those two guys really run the ball. Wendell is having a tremendous year this year compared to his sophomore year. With that being said and with Wendell running the ball the way he is, we’re going to take what the defense is giving us. The defense is giving us the run game. We’re going to run it down their throats.”
With nearly 2,000 rushing yards in his career at West Virginia, Smallwood could be the link that allows the Mountaineers to finish off the 2015-16 season with a winning record and a worthy bowl game.
Feature image credit: Dale Sparks/wvusports.com
Some quotes in this article courtesy WVU Athletic Communications