2nd of a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s football team ahead of the upcoming season.
And in case you missed it..
This installment of our season preview will cover West Virginia’s running backs. The early departure of Wendell Smallwood to the NFL took some of the shine off of what was shaping up to be our best backfield in about 10 years, but some savvy recruiting and an experienced offensive line should once again make the WVU ground game a strength.
Rushel Shell returns for his senior season as West Virginia’s feature back after a solid junior campaign that saw him rush for 708 yards and 8 touchdowns on 161 carries while splitting time with Wendell Smallwood. He also showed good versatility, catching 16 balls for 101 more yards out of the backfield. Shell is a big body with good feet and change of pace and has the luxury of running behind an offensive line that returns 4 starters. Like Skyler, Rushel has every opportunity to be the guy this year, he just has to rise to the occasion and take advantage.
The Good: When it comes to pure running talent, Shell probably has “it” even more than the dearly departed Wendell Smallwood. He’s a former 5-star recruit and high-school All-American who has that unteachable knack for getting defenders off-balance that all great running backs have. He has a very natural running style with great hips and a low center of gravity, making him very difficult to bring down when he gets in open space, and once he does get into the open field he also displays decent top-end speed, often surprising defenders and outrunning their angles because his movements are so smooth that he almost seems slow.
Shell did well in passing situations last year as well, and it’s crucial that he continues this trend if he is going to have the kind of senior season that he wants to. Kennedy McKoy and Justin Crawford are both extremely capable receivers who will challenge for situational playing time right away, so Shell needs to be able to consistently pick up blitzes and provide an outlet for Skyler Howard when called upon or else he’ll have to come off the field on passing downs.
The Bad: The big question that logically follows the previous section is: if Shell is so talented and good at running, why was Wendell Smallwood so much more effective last year? Why was Smallwood able to average 6.5 ypc while Rushel only managed 4.4? I think the main reasons are the ways he starts and finishes his runs.
To be clear, his “starting” issue is not an all the time thing, but he sometimes looks a bit indecisive when hitting the hole. He just doesn’t always seem to attack the line with urgency. I suppose this could be interpreted as him trying to be patient, but it’s not like he’s LeVeon Bell or something, and it felt like there were plays last year where he tip toed and danced his way to the line and lost yards when if he would’ve just stuck his nose in there with a little gumption he would’ve fallen forward for at least a few.
Now to the other problem: finishing. He doesn’t always finish runs with the authority that you’d expect from a man his size. Rushel’s got a little ass to him, and there were a couple occasions last year where he slowed down or ran out of bounds instead of ruining some poor defensive back’s day. I don’t care for that.
I want this every play, Rushel:
Give, damnit. You’re 5’11 225. That’s stout as hell. You should be an absolute SOB to tackle out there.
Of course, there’s always the chance that these issues may have been magnified by the fact that they were contrasted next to Wendell Smallwood, and Smallwood attacks the line of scrimmage like a wild man and doesn’t stop moving his feet until the ref takes the ball from him, but I think the point stands. The plays where Shell dances at the line and loses a yard when Wendell would’ve gotten two, or where Wendell lowers his shoulder and falls forward when Shell runs out of bounds add up. Again, these flaws are not all the time things, but it’s not hard a hard leap to make to think that they can account for at least some of the 2.1 ypc disparity between them, right? Taking what’s there and finishing runs are skills in and of themselves, and Shell’s improvement (or lack thereof) in those areas will be something to keep an eye on come September. If he can do it on an every down basis I think he could be in for a special year.
THE BACKUP BRIGADE
There are 3 guys who will probably be competing for and ultimately splitting playing time behind Rushel this fall: JUCO transfer Justin Crawford and true freshmen Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. McKoy in particular was one of the bright spots this spring, and I expect him to contribute early and often. He’s a versatile 6’1 195-ish with outstanding balance, great hands out of the backfield, and a dead leg move that probably still has some poor HS kids confused and pondering life. McKoy will also be able to line up in the slot if necessary, which I believe could be his ticket onto the field early in his WVU career.
Justin Crawford is cut from the same cloth as McKoy, and is an outstanding all-around athlete. The NCJAA Offensive Player of the Year rushed 248 times for 1610 yards and 16 touchdowns and caught 29 balls for 394 yards and another 6 scores. Crawford might have even better hands than McKoy, and I also expect him to line up all over the field for us this fall. One thing to watch with these two will be to see who holds up better in pass protection, as I suspect whoever does will earn the lion’s share of the playing time behind Shell.
Pettaway seems a bit more one dimensional than the other 2 newcomers and as such, I expect he’ll have the hardest time getting onto the field. This is not meant to be a knock on Martell at all, but more of a compliment to the McKoy and Crawford. Pettaway looks like a phenomenal runner and I expect him to do big things in the Gold and Blue when his time comes, whether that’s this year or sometime further down the road.
Elijah Wellman carved himself out a nice situational role as our H-Back last year and provided a much-needed physical presence in the WVU backfield. The Spring Valley, WV native has a Scotty Gyorko-sized neck and is a great asset to have out there in short yardage and goal line situations not only for the obvious lead blocking, but also for that little play action slide play into the flats that everyone runs and is still somehow always wide open. Wellman also flashed a little bit of ability with the ball in his hands, rushing 14 times for 74 yards and a score to go along with 5 receptions and another pair of touchdowns, and I look for him to have an expanded role this fall and build on what’s already been a very nice little career here.
POSITION GRADE – 4/5
The beautiful thing about West Virginia’s backfield this fall will be the balance. On paper there seems to be an answer for every situation. We have a feature back in Rushel Shell, two do-it-all athletes in Crawford and McKoy, and a short yardage/lead blocker guy in Elijah Wellman. And all of these guys will be running behind a talented offensive line that returns 4 starters from last year.
Speaking of the offensive line, it will be interesting to see how the addition of Deputy OC/Offensive Line coach Joe Wickline affects our running game and play calling in general. Wickline previously worked with Holgs at Oklahoma State, where together they developed the diamond formation to devastating effect. This is a great write-up on said formation. Take a look at the necessary components section in that article: a good back, a good lead blocker, a receiver who can win 1 on 1 matchups on the outside, and a QB who can throw it down the field. Now who does that remind you of? Hey, I know! That reminds me of West Virginia University, and Rushel Shell, Elijah Wellman, Shelton Gibson, and Skyler Howard respectively.
We’ve already seen the diamond incorporated into the offense since Holgorsen’s arrival, but now that we have both of the Founding Fathers you have to expect that it will become an even more prevalent part of the game plan. It not only compliments our pieces perfectly, but will also allow us to get super creative with our personnel packages and create mismatches all over the field. We can run the standard 21 package with Howard, Shell, Wellman, and one of McKoy or Crawford, we can bump Wellman and just play all 3 of Shell, McKoy, and Crawford, hell we could even bump Howard for Crest or Crawford (who played a little QB in high school) and throw 4 pure athletes out there at the same time. And between the versatility of our running backs and the flexibility of the formation, there should be plenty of opportunities for all of them to find a little joy.
For example: It’s 2nd and short. We roll out the diamond with a 31 package (3 backs, 1 tight end), deploying Shell as the tailback, McKoy and Crawford as the sidecars, and Wellman as a tight end. The defense would have to think run there, and would probably throw an extra linebacker onto the field to compensate. Oh wait, 2 of those 3 backs can play wide receiver. So we shift formations pre-snap, putting Crawford on the outside opposite Gibson and McKoy into the slot next to him. Now that extra linebacker has the pleasure of trying to cover McKoy in space, which he obviously can’t do. Many touchdowns and celebrations ensue. Pure sex.
Obviously I’m very excited about our backfield this year and you just know that Holgs and Wickline are cooking up all kinds of crazy things to do with them. It’s going to be a nightmare for people, and I can’t wait.