UP: This might be the mostly lengthy "up" section in our series of previews, because the running back position appears to have a mix of tools, talents and abilities to meet most any challenge in 2013. Need raw speed to get to the edge or burst through a hole? Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison are there. Looking for someone to finish runs, pick up the short yardage assignments and handle a heavy dose of carries? Meet Dreamius Smith. A target out of the backfield and an excellent open field guy? Transfer Charles Sims is the pick. An all-around team guy who can block, catch passes and line up at multiple positions? Cody Clay, come on down.
As if that list wasn't extensive enough, a pair of incoming freshmen, Elijah Wellman and Wendell Smallwood, would probably be good enough, in most instances, to mount a campaign for playing time, were the position not so crowded in front of them. They'll make their cases to get on the field over the first couple weeks of practice, but it won't be a surprise if they redshirt – and not due to any shortcomings on their part. There's just that much talent on the field at their positions.
The deep roster, all of them proven on the collegiate level, also gives running backs coach JaJuan Seider the chance to highlight each player's best skills, and not wear anyone down before November arrives. He'll be able to use multiple backs in each game, and while a bell cow might emerge that gets more carries, it won't be a surprise to see each of the four primary ball carriers to get chances during each game, especially early in the season.
If there's one player that might be an early candidate for a prime role, it's Smith, who appears to have the most rounded skill set, in combination with the most impressive physique. Sims is right there as well, but his injury history at Houston might lead to a conservative approach with him in terms of touches.
The only real challenge is to get enough carries for all of the talent at the position. Discounting quarterback runs, WVU backs carried the ball 385 times last year (that includes Tavon Austin's 72 carries, some of which came from the slot). While one or two backs will likely get a few more carries than the others, it's also not unimaginable to see all four of the potential runners topping the 100 carries mark this year. Given the apparent depth of the position, might West Virginia run the ball even more in 2013? Would 500 carries be out of the question? Even if that happens, the Mountaineers look to have the bodies to carry the load.
DOWN: It's tough to envision a scenario where the running game falls apart, unless it's one where outside influences come into play. An under-performing offensive line or injuries could slow the expected onslaught of rushing from the Mountaineers, but even if one or two of the backfield group fail to live up to expectations, there is enough talent to cover that sort of shortcoming.
The only other possibility that could hinder overall production would be dissatisfaction by a player or two with his role, or grumbling about the number of touches. There hasn't been any hint of such a problem, and this is certainly not to suggest that it is going to crop up. The renewed emphasis on team play should keep any such issues from surfacing, and so long as the backfield group works together, it's tough to see anything slowing West Virginia from averaging a couple of hundred yards per game on the ground.
KEY ITEM: If the backs are in shape as they hit the field on Thursday, it's difficult to identify a major obstacle to their success. Certainly, Sims has to get comfortable with the quarterbacks and the formations. Those will differ a bit from his Houston days. As a whole, the group will likely have to get more comfortable with more two- and three-back sets, which could be a bigger part of the offense. However, those aren't huge issues, and a couple weeks of tuning during the preseason should take care of any concerns in those areas.
One thing to watch will be how the backs handle the spotlight. After a season in which the passing game got most of the glory and attention, this year it will be the running game, at least in the early going, that gets at least partial headline billing. That will put a bit more pressure on the backfield, but again, its not as if they haven't had attention before.
One other challenge will be the ability to break off big gains. Austin was obviously a master in that area, so no one in this group will be expected to match his performance, but WVU does need to get some breakout plays from the running game. Buie had a long run of 30 yards a year ago, while Garrison's was 26, Those aren't bad numbers by any means, but it would be a big help if there were a handful of 40-yarders dotting the backs' stat lines by the end of the season.