West Virginia Mountaineers Spring Practice Preview: Running Backs

Our spring practice preview schedule:

For the first time since 2005, WVU will begin the football season without a proven commodity at running back.  That fact, when taken together with Coach Holgorsen's new air raid offense, has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the Mountaineers' rushing attack in 2011.  For a school known throughout most of the 2000's as one of the nation's most prolific rushing offenses, that uncertainty likely has Mountaineer fans at least slightly uneasy about what to expect on the field this fall.

Consider this:  from 2005 through 2007, WVU rushed for more than 3,000 yards every single year, with Steve Slaton eclipsing 1,000 yards in each of those seasons.  Granted, large chunks of that total were the result of having the greatest rushing quarterback in the history of college football lined up beside Slaton.  From 2008 to 2010, the torch was passed to Noel Devine, who continued the tradition of WVU's dynamic running backs by rushing for nearly 1,300 yards in 2008 and 1,500 yards in 2009 before injuries and poor offensive line play combined to hold Devine under 1,000 in his senior season.

The question is whether that tradition is now in jeopardy of falling by the wayside when Geno Smith throws 47 passes per game to about 9 different receivers.  To answer that question, let's take a look at how WVU's rushing attack over the past three seasons under Jeff Mullen compared to the running games overseen by Holgorsen at Houston in 2008 and 2009 and at Oklahoma State in 2010.

TEAM A 2010 450 Carries 2267 Yards 5.0 Avg 174.4 Ypg 26 TD
TEAM B 2010 526 Carries 2076 Yards 3.9 Avg 159.7 Ypg 18 TD
TEAM A 2009 508 Carries 2423 Yards 4.8 Avg 186.4 Ypg 29 TD
TEAB B 2009 403 Carries 1815 Yards 4.5 Avg 139.6 Ypg 23 TD
TEAM A 2008 517 Carries 2729 Yards 5.2 Avg 209.9 Ypg 15 TD
TEAM B 2008 406 Carries 2095 Yards 5.2 Avg 161.2 Ypg 23 TD











In 2010, WVU (TEAM B) rushing for less yardage and fewer touchdowns on almost 100 more carries.  Certainly, Noel Devine's lack of production contributed to WVU's anemic totals while Kendall Hunter's prolific season helped make Oklahoma State's running game one of the most efficient in the country.

In 2009, WVU (TEAM A) ran the ball 100 more times than Houston and piled up appreciably more yardage and more touchdowns, but was not so much more efficient per carry so as to have a perceived advantage in that category. 

In 2008, WVU (TEAM A), with Pat White under center, again ran the ball 100 more times than Holgorsen's Houston offense.  And while the total was more, the per-carry average was identical and Houston actually scored more touchdowns than the Mountaineers did.

For Dana Holgorsen's offense, running the ball efficiently is far more important than total production.  If you establish the threat of the running game, the passing game opens up, and vice versa.  Once that is established, the next issue is making sure the offense is capable of pounding the ball into the endzone and for first downs in short-yardage situations.  Based on the numbers over the past three seasons, Holgorsen's offense---which has run it far less than Jeff Mullen's but with equal or better results---is more than capable of getting meaningful production out of the running game. 

So how does Holgorsen accomplish these results?

By now, most WVU fans know about Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State's star running back who exploded for 1548 yards and 16 TD this past season on just 271 carries, good for an average of 5.7 yards per tote.  What many fans probably don't know is that 2010 wasn't Hunter's first rodeo (Get it, WVUIE97?  OK St. Cowboys?  Rodeo?).  In 2008, Hunter had rushed for 1555 yards and 16 TD on just 241 carries, which is actually an average of 6.5 yards per attempt, before injuries limited his production in 2009.  So at least Hunter was a capable back.

In 2010, Oklahoma State had two other backs run for significant yardage:  Joseph Randle, who went for 452 yards on 82 carries, which is an average of 5.5, and 2 TD; and Jeremy Smith, who ran for 262 yards on 56 carries, an average of 4.7 yards, and 7 TD.  By contrast, WVU had 4 players carry the ball more than 50 times:  Devine (209-936-6); Ryan Clarke (80-291-8); Shawne Alston (56-248-0); and Geno Smith (106-217-0).  That doesn't include Tavon Austin, who had 15 carries for 159 yards and a touchdown, and others like Jock Sanders, Trey Johnson, and Daquan Hargrett, who saw spot duty. 

Based on Holgorsen's past at Oklahoma State and Houston, he's going to distribute the lion's share of the carries to a small group of the best playmakers.  Notably, that doesn't include the quarterback.  And while Geno Smith didn't fool anyone into thinking he was Pat White, Rasheed Marshall, Major Harris, or even Jarrett Brown last year, expect him to run even less this year.  So with Devine and Sanders both gone, the carries are going to fall among those leftover from the above group, plus talented newcomers Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison, and Vernard Roberts.

Here is how I expect the depth chart to look at the beginning of the season:

1.  Shawne Alston
2.  Ryan Clarke
3.  Andrew Buie
4.  Trey Johnson
5.  Daquan Hargrett

Frankly, that's not how I expect the depth chart to stay.  It seems like everyone is raving about Andrew Buie, and I fully expect him to come in and take over as the starting running back as the season wears on.  He's faster than Alston and Clarke and bigger than Johnson and Hargrett.  Think Quincy Wilson---strong, but with enough speed to break a long run every now and then. 

If Buie comes on midway through the season as expected, I would be surprised to see anyone pile up a 1,000 yard season, let alone anything close to Kendall Hunter's 1,500 yards.  However, I fully expect the final statistics to resemble the team totals from Holgorsen's previous teams listed above, just with the carries more evenly split among Alston and Buie, with Clarke continuing his role as a short yardage back.

That's not to say that none of the others could come on strong.  Early reports from spring practice have Hargrett and Johnson showing flashes early of being capable of producing.  And certainly Vernard Roberts has the talent to compete at this level, while Dustin Garrison has accomplished more at the high school level than any of them.  The more the guys on the lower portion of the depth chart improve and push the others, the better off the team will be in the long run.

While WVU's rushing attack may not look like the one you've grown accustomed to seeing with guys like Slaton and Devine in the backfield, it appears to be in good hands.  Hands capable of getting quality, efficient production from the running game despite being known primarily as a passing team.  WVU may not have a proven talent like Kendall Hunter returning, but with the talent we have returning and coming in this year, Mountaineer fans won't have to worry about the running backs any time soon. 

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