Dana Holgorsen has been known for his team’s passing yardage throughout his career but he has shown a willingness and desire to run the ball. That was no more evident than last year. After losing four straight games, Dana regrouped and leaned on his junior running backs Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood. The result was Wendell Smallwood rushing for over 100 yards in 5 of the last 6 games of the regular season, on his way to the Big 12 Rushing Title.
Wendell chose to take his talents to Philadelphia, being drafted by the Eagles in the 5th round of the 2016 NFL Draft. That leaves the Mountaineers with only one returning running back from last year.
Rushel Shell has been an enigma in his time in college. Despite setting the Pennsylvania High School rushing record, Shell has never broken even 800 yards in a year in college. After a promising freshman year at Pitt, Shell transferred to West Virginia and sat out the 2013 season. In two seasons with the Mountaineers, Shell has rushed for 1,496 yards or 23 yards fewer than Smallwood last year.
Shell is best suited as a power back in a power run game and straight ahead lanes. If he can make one cut and get upfield, Shell is an effective and punishing running back. When the offensive line fails to open up large holes for Shell, he tends to dance and run sideways, resulting in small gains or negative plays. Shell does offer some ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, having caught 37 passes the last two years.
Wendell Smallwood’s contributions to the Mountaineers will continue this year. Thanks in part to the blend of speed, agility and ability to line up all over, Smallwood confirmed what the coaches have always known: This offense functions best with a do-it-all running back who can catch the ball. Last recruiting cycle, the Mountaineer coaches brought in two running backs who can do just that.
Former JUCO National Player of the Year Justin Crawford will compete immediately with Shell for starting time. Crawford rushed for over 1,500 yards last year in only 9 games while adding another 306 yards receiving on just 12 catches, over 25 yards per catch. That YPC average is higher than Shelton Gibson, who led the Big 12 in YPC with 24.
The other newcomer is freshman Kennedy McCoy. McCoy is very similar to Crawford, bringing an explosiveness out of the backfield while showing he can catch the ball. Runningbacks coach JaJuan Seider was gushing over McCoy during the spring.
“It’s refreshing to have a kid that’s so smart. He’s just an old country kid that loves football and is a 4.0 student. You can tell him one time and he doesn’t even have to write it down, because his memory bank is so big. He remembers stuff and he can out and transition it on the field.” - WVU RB Coach JaJuan Seider
Lost some times when talking about running backs are the guys who get no love, the fullbacks. Dana Holgorsen has shown a preference for hybrid players who can block, run and catch. Redshirt junior Elijah Wellman offers those abilities. He has shown a willingness to stick his nose into the run game and block linebackers, safeties and even defensive lineman to help pave the way for running backs. Wellman has also shown a knack for catching the ball with three career receiving touchdowns. Wellman is a solid specimen at 6’-1” and 240 pounds. He has been reliable for the Mountaineers.
Backing up Wellman will be Michael Ferns, a four star prospect from Ohio. Ferns originally enrolled at Michigan and redshirted in 2014. Ferns opted to transfer to West Virginia after the 2014 season and sat out last season to complete the NCAA Transfer Eligibility requirements. Ferns originally was expected to be a linebacker but switched positions this spring.
Shell will be the starter tomorrow but both McCoy and Crawford will get their opportunities to make plays. Given the struggles of Shell in his first two years here in Morgantown, don’t be surprised if Crawford is the guy getting 20+ carries by November. Crawford’s blend of speed, size, agility and hands will make him someone to watch. He could garner Newcomer of the Year in the Big 12 and be in line for an even better 2017.