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West Virginia’s Justin Crawford is quietly having one of the best seasons of any running back in the country

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You know Justin Crawford and you know what he does for West Virginia. He’s also quietly, subtly putting together a banner senior campaign... but is anyone else in the country taking notice?

West Virginia v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

We’re four weeks in, people. Four weeks of football down and we finally, maybe, perhaps have some semblance of who this Mountaineer football team is.

For instance, we know Will Grier is really good. We know that David Sills was born to do this receiver thing. We know that Kyzir White can play defensive football about as well as his oldest brother played the wide receiver spot. We know that the rest of the defense is experiencing tons some growing pains (all of this was covered very well by my partner Jordan Pinto right here) and will hopefully move past them SOON.

You know what else we know? We know that Justin Crawford is beyond capable of running the football. In fact, he is also very, very good.

It’s knowledge that has only grown more concrete and more vivid since he debuted last year against Missouri. Even hampered by injuries as he was throughout the latter half of 2016, Crawford managed to turn in one of the greatest rushing performances in program history against Oklahoma en route to an 1,184 season.

Beyond the yardage itself, 2016 left much to be desired from the Columbus, GA native and rightly so. The potential was there in plain view and when it was announced that we’d see him back in Morgantown in 2017, the joy was palpable. So far, there’s been nothing but fireworks.

Four games into his farewell tour in Morgantown, Justin Crawford has been consistently dazzling as the lead horse in Tony Dews’ stable. Credit a full off season, a clean bill of health and another year to soak up the book of air raid. Credit also Will Grier standing under center and forcing defenses to sleep in cover two for fear of being beaten deep. Credit whatever you want. The point is, Justin Crawford is producing at an all-american rate for one of the three best offenses in the country and while Mountaineer nation is loving every second of it, the rest of the college football world seems strangely mum on the subject.

Currently, Crawford ranks 11th nationally in yardage (451), 18th in rushing TD’s (6) and 23rd in avg YPC (7.4). Consider also that Crawford hasn’t carried the ball more than 18 times in a single game this season and that almost, if not all of those carries, have occurred in the first two quarters of each of those games. Based on the committee approach that West Virginia is implementing with its running game and the fact that Will Grier has been so productive in the passing game, its fairly easy to see how productive Crawford has been despite minimal carries.

Oh, I almost forgot- The Big 12, home of offense, where defense is forsaken? Crawford leads that conference right now in rushing.

Of course the numbers are just one vantage for which to examine Justin Crawford’s production at this point in the season. Film tells the rest of the story, as it typically does. Crawford runs with a smoothness that belies what’s a very explosive, very efficient ability to one-cut and avoid defenders in space. In short, he’s fun to watch. Not only because of the effort he runs with, but because he creates plays on his own.

Against Virginia Tech, Crawford was able to cross the century mark on only 13 carries. While I lament to tell you he was held scoreless, I will also remind you that the Hokie defense has yielded exactly ZERO rushing touchdowns this season. Pretty solid for a top-30 defense, nationally. Scan ahead to the 2:22 mark, though, and you’ll see exactly what I’m referring to in terms of run style and creativity.

West Virginia runs a simple zone scheme and Crawford makes the immediate read to bounce it outside. What he does next is essentially a series of moves on autopilot. The Hokies are a well-coached team that can tackle well. This is not something many running backs will do against a Bud Foster defense and was one of several big runs he produced on the night.

At the 1:32 mark here, the color commentator is quick to note that the middle of the defense is playing pretty far off the ball, clearly anticipating a throw over the middle or something in the vein of RPO where they’d be in danger of getting pulled off gap assignment by a false read. Regardless, the Mountaineers opted to go with an inside hand off to Crawford who heads straight downhill past the A gap. This is what makes no. 25 so lethal.

Crawford may not have elite speed past forty yards, but what he does possess is incredible acceleration out of his stance. He can effortlessly get to his red line in about one step and for a defense that is already playing on their heels, it’s basically guaranteed pay dirt for Justin Crawford every time. This play is simply about Justin Crawford to launch himself out of a canon and win a foot race against 23 of an opposing defense.

Yes, you can downplay offensive production based on who West Virginia has played thus far. When you look at the defensive stats for ECU, Delaware State and Kansas, there’s not much there to awe the average fan. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, entered the September 3rd match up coming off a 2016 campaign where they gave up just over 148 rush yards and 22.7 PPG. Those averages figure to stay consistent throughout 2017, which would keep them in the top 30 nationally.

Looking forward, West Virginia has three other top 50 defenses on their schedule in Oklahoma (37), TCU (32) and Kansas State (20). The odds, therefore, stack pretty well in the Mountaineers’ favor in terms of continued offensive production.

Holgorsen has said that he’d continue to put more emphasis on the run game, particularly in an effort to keep Will Grier healthy and on his feet. This means a bigger role for Crawford and more carries as West Virginia starts to dive into the meat of its conference schedule.

We may all be a bit spellbound by what we’ve seen Grier do in the first portion of the season (guilty) and I certainly hope that’s the case for you, as well. There’s no diminishing how good he’s been and how much better he can continue to get. This Mountaineer offense, as a whole, has been remarkable in just about every sense and based on the Big 12’s defensive repertoire, there’s plenty of reason for continued excitement. But let’s not become numb to how quietly excellent Justin Crawford has been, either.

The press clippings most of us see regarding running backs- Saquon Barkley, Royce Freeman and Bryce Love to name a few- are considerable. Not to take away from anything these athletes have accomplished, but its hard to argue that any back in the country has been so consistent and so productive with so few chances as Crawford has.

The acclaim that some of these runners are garnering will likely- and I hate to say this, but- will likely never accumulate around Justin Crawford in similar fashion this season. Such is the nature of blue bloods vs. rubes, preseason hype vs. middling regard, constant national media attention vs. occasional spotlight, so on and so forth. You all know how this deal works.

Justin Crawford, like several other JUCO stars of yesteryear, will be gone from the program too soon. It’s a monumental order for someone to do in two years what most players are given to accomplish in four. While I can’t say how the final chapter of Justin Crawford’s tenure in Morgantown will be written at tale’s end, I can say this:

If he continues to play as he has shown he’s capable of playing in the first four games this season, Crawford may well put together one of the best seasons of any Mountaineer running back in the program’s history.

We have to enjoy this, we have to appreciate the work this young man has poured into his preparation. We have to hope that Dana and Jake Spavital game plan to make full use of the extensive ability he possesses. Will Grier and the magic he’s working from the pocket will dominate most of the ink being spilled regarding the Mountaineers’ offense.

The shy, hardworking, once and former JUCO superstar from Georgia is doing things few outside of Morgantown can truly appreciate. Maybe that’s the way he likes it. Maybe that’s the way it was always meant to play out. Regardless, that thousand watt smile pairs nicely with a thousand yards from scrimmage. Even quietly at work, Justin Crawford is shining bright as ever for West by God.