clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

West Virginia's State of the Art Backfield is arguably the nation's most balanced

JC doing his thing

The off-season on Reddit's college football sub (r/cfb) is largely spent on the mostly unpleasant yet occasionally rewarding task of sifting through a steady stream of shitposts in search of OC gold. Some of my favorites this summer have been a detailed analysis of Mike Gundy's mullet and the revelation that it's been almost 9000 days since Notre Dame last won a football game in January, but despite the obvious importance and highly enlightening nature of those posts, they didn't adequately scratch my off-season football itch. You can only imagine my excitement then when I stumbled upon a recent one titled "Forgotten Teams: The 1993 West Virginia Mountaineers".

I had a great time diving back into that magical season, from the nostalgia that swelled up at the mention of names like Robert Walker, Aaron Beasley, Mike Logan, and Rashaan Vanterpool to the goosebumpy excitement of the 17-14 upset of Miami in front of a record Mountaineer Field crowd.

I actually ended up rewatching a good bit of the latter, entranced by facemasks and shoulder pads that were every bit as retro as the gear I saw in the stands. The part I was most struck by though was just how dated the game itself seemed. There were fullbacks and tight ends involved in every play, and linebackers as big as houses. It was kind of like getting sucked back into an old movie on cable and being surprised by the poor visual effects, but it got me thinking about how different football is today, which eventually led me into thinking about just how well-suited our running backs are for the modern game.

When you think about it, the backfield has arguably seen more change in the past 20 years than any other position group, both in the types of players you see and in the way that they're used. As offenses have become more spread out, teams have gravitated towards players who can take advantage of that space, increasingly favoring speed and agility over size and power.

In addition to running the ball, backs are now expected to catch passes out of the backfield and even split out wide like a receiver, and these demands are causing many teams to roll with a running back by committee, a movement built around the idea that certain skill sets are better for certain situations (as well as the obvious fact that getting tackled less frequently keeps guys healthier). And though we still see generational talents who are good enough to handle all of those roles by themselves, most teams end up filling them Moneyball-style with multiple guys chipping in in various ways. The nice thing about rotating players like that though, is that when their talents are complementary and you get the balance just right, everything just amplifies. It's one of the most beautiful aspects of team sports, the way that different guys can come together to become greater than the sum of their parts, and it's what I love about our backfield trio.

There's Justin Crawford, the 5'11 205-pound jitterbug who averaged 7.3 yards per carry (8th nationally) and produced an explosive play better than once every five carries (21.5%, 13th nationally) during an electric 1184-yard debut campaign that saw him win Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year and emerge as the most exciting runner in the conference. He doesn't have elite top-end speed, but his balance, agility, and burst through the line and into the second level are truly exceptional.

Kennedy McKoy is an all-purpose stud who is perhaps our best example of the way the football has evolved since that Miami game. He's a 6'1 195-pound Swiss Army knife with excellent ball skills, meaning there's a decent chance that he'd have ended up at wide receiver if he'd come along 20 years earlier, but his smooth running style and open-field abilities make him ideal to take advantage of the spaces and matchups now created for running backs by spread offenses. McKoy averaged 6.5 yards per touch from a variety of positions last season, and his versatility is sure to force many a sleepless night from opposing defensive coordinators this year.

Then there's our fundamentalist, Martell Pettaway, who like the House that carries his name in Game of Thrones has been Unbowed, Unbent, and Unbroken by the changing times. He's a decisive downhill runner who at 5'9, 205 attacks defenders like some sort of bizarro Karl Joseph, constantly initiating contact and falling forward. I think he's in for a greatly expanded role this fall and should give our running game a bit of the red zone pop that was absent a year ago.

They're all three talented enough that any of them can fill in for any of the others, but unique enough for specialized roles in certain situations. It really is an offensive coordinator's dream, and should allow our staff to be extremely creative this fall. There will be times when we'll see two or even all three of them on the field together, and McKoy's positional flexibility in particular should lead to some pretty interesting pre-snap looks. The best part though, is that the departure of Skyler Howard and Rushel Shell (and their 276 combined carries last year) means 2017 should provide plenty of opportunities for everybody to shine.

Consider that we averaged about 44 rushing attempts per game last year, and that on average about half of them were used by either Howard or Shell. Consider also that while Will Grier has surprisingly good wheels, he won't be galavanting about nearly as much as Howard did. I'd guess that means there'll be between 35 and 40 carries available each game for these guys, and when you add in the plays they'll see in the passing game it should be no problem for all three of them to get into the double digits for touches. And considering that they averaged about 6.7 yards on each of their 310 combined touches last year, that probably means good things for our offense.

Looking around the country, there can't be more than 10 schools that feel as good as we do heading into the year. LSU, Penn State, USC, Alabama, and Florida State all have better high-end talent, and there's probably another handful of teams that have comparable depth. Outside of that though? Let's just say it should be a fun year. I'm not trying to make the argument that the nation's best running back resides in Morgantown, or that we have the best backfield in the country, but I do think that as a group our guys provide as much balance and utility as anybody out there.