RB Preview: Backfield thinks it can be elite

This is the second part of our 2014 season preview, in which we will be providing an in-depth breakdown of the West Virginia football team heading into the season.

STORYLINES TO WATCH Who takes over? Charles Sims was easily West Virginia’s most valuable player a year ago. Will Rushel Shell or Dreamius Smith, who have impressed during camp, be able to fill his shoes, or will the Mountaineers be better off using the Running Back By Committee model with five talented running backs vying for playing time.
Smallwood’s impact After emerging as one of WVU’s most versatile threats in the spring, Wendell Smallwood’s future was unclear after an arrest in Delaware. But now that the charges have been dropped and the sophomore is in camp, it will be interesting to see how much he will be used.
Back in the mix After redshirting last season due to a crowded group of running backs, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie are looking to get back to the same form they were in when they led WVU in rushing earlier in their careers. Can they step up and find time on the field after strong springs?

Dreamius Smith didn’t hesitate when he was asked which group of running backs he would choose when asked who he would take between West Virginia’s backfield or Alabama’s.

“Oh, ours,” he said.

Of course, the West Virginia running back might be a little biased in that regard, as the senior is looking to lead the way for the Mountaineer running game in 2014. But with a stable of backs deeper than they have had in quite some time, the Mountaineers believe they deserve to be in the conversation among the nation’s best rushing attacks.

And there will be no better time to test that theory than when WVU opens the regular season Aug. 30 in Atlanta against No. 2 Alabama. West Virginia’s showdown against the Crimson Tide will be a showdown between two talented running games and will put the Mountaineers up against what has been one of the best and most consistent rushing defenses in all of college football.

“They have great backs, obviously, it’s an SEC school and they have great ones,” Smith said. “But we’ve got a lot of running backs who could be pretty good players in the SEC too.”

This season, the Mountaineers have a unique mix of versatility and experience that they have not had in a while. Five of the six running backs who will likely be vying for playing time have seen major playing time in their careers, and four have run for more than 150 yards in a game.

With the amount of talent they have, running backs coach JaJuan Seider doesn’t think his team will feel overmatched squaring off against the Tide.

But even though there’s still plenty of time before the teams square off, it didn’t take long for that game to become one that was circled on their calendar.

“All we hear about is how good Alabama is and what they have, but we think we’re pretty damn good too,” Seider said. “We feel like we can line up against anybody in the country too.”

With backs like Smith and Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, West Virginia has a few classic every-down backs who can take a lot of carries. Wendell Smallwood, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie are smaller, faster backs who have plenty of experience and provide versatility.

That has made the important thing become showing that they are willing to do anything it takes to get on the field and help in a variety of ways. The coaching staff has talked up Buie and Garrison for their abilities to block and the strides they have made in becoming more complete backs from that standpoint. Smith has spent time on kickoff teams, working as a blocker, while Shell and Smallwood have worked in the return game.

Those things have helped them stand out and prove they’re ready to do what it takes to get to the level they need to get to in order for this backfield to get the most out of the potential and talent on the roster.

“You have to be ready to do it all,” Garrison said. “The plays you make without the ball in your hand will make you stand out. It’s what the coaches will see. If that’s what it would take to get on the field, that’s what we’re all going to do.”

Somehow lost in the mix of the crowded group of backs is WVU’s highly touted freshman running back Dontae Thomas-Williams. The Durham, N.C., native will likely redshirt this season as he learns from the handful of experienced backs.

But that doesn’t mean the freshman isn’t competing with everyone. Thomas-Williams has stood out physically, not looking like a typical freshman.

The 6-foot running back stands in at 230 pounds, down eight pounds from when he got to campus, according to Seider. But even though he’s a big back, he’s deceptively quick and is able to move like a much smaller, speedy running back in space.

“He’s bigger than all of them. But he’s a freshman and the thing about him is continuing to learn and take baby steps,” Seider said. “It’s hard to say (what weight he will play at) because he can carry the weight now. I saw him running with that weight and running the 4x100 relay in track and outrun everybody.

“Sometimes we as coaches get so caught up in the weight, but can the kid carry it? Is he comfortable and in the best shape?”

The running backs at WVU didn’t need extra motivation. They already knew they had something to prove this season. But knowing the first date on that schedule, knowing it’s Alabama and everything that comes with playing that program has gotten this group ready to show it can be one of the elite groups in all of college football.”

“We like those games when nobody gives you chance. It’s the perfect time. One thing about West Virginia is that we’re prideful,” Seider said. “But nobody’s going to tell us what we can and can’t do.”


PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

1. Dreamius Smith, SENIOR
2013: 103 carries for 494 yards with five touchdowns

2. Rushel Shell, SOPHOMORE
2012 (at Pitt): 141 carries for 641 yards with four touchdowns

3. Wendell Smallwood, SOPHOMORE
2013: 39 carries for 221 yards with one touchdown

4. Dustin Garrison, JUNIOR
2012: 46 carries for 207 yards with two touchdowns

5. Andrew Buie, JUNIOR
2012: 179 carries for 851 yards with seven touchdowns

6. Dontae Thomas-Williams, FRESHMAN
2013 (at Hillside HS): 2,400 yards with 24 touchdowns


What they're saying

"It's fun just thinking about (blocking for the running backs). If we block up the way we're supposed to, we're going to be watching those guys pass us and just go a lot this season.”
- Offensive lineman Mark Glowinski

“Our team chemistry is through the roof this year. We all are playing for each other. Last year we weren't that way, we weren't all in with each other. This year it's different, we have a bond that can't be broken.”
- Running back Dreamius Smith


Meet the newcomers

One year ago, Wendell Smallwood came to West Virginia as a freshman staring up at a crowded running back depth chart. Transfers Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith, along with returning veteran Dustin Garrison, were stacked above him, leading most casual observers to believe he was headed for a redshirt. However, Smallwood's performance during fall camp, highlighted by his versatility, put him on the field rather than on the bench during the 2013 season.

Fast forward to 2014, and freshman Dontae Thomas-Williams is in a similar situation. Check that -- he came in even futher down the ladder, what with Smith, Garrison, Smallwood, Rushel Shell and Andrew Buie all vying for time and notice above him. Again, conventional wisdom seems to say that DTW is headed for a year on the sidelines -- but you can't write that 100% in stone.

As should be apparent to most college football fans, the running back position is subject to many slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Injury, personal issues, fumbling problems can all, like a Shakespearean tragedy, combine to reduce a seemingly stocked roster to tatters. That's not to say anything of the sort is in the offing for the Mountaineers (fall camp has been harmonious and fairly injury free to date) but you never know what the situation might look like two months from now.

Given a static environment, though, the safe bet is for Thomas-Williams to spend the season learning from his elders. With five proven backs ahead of him, not even the tactic of using some as slot receivers would open enough time for him to move into place alongside the upperclassmen on the roster. Consider that Smallwood, for all his talents, got just 50 touches from scrimmage a year ago. He was very productive with those, averaging more than seven yards per chance, but would similar numbers (an unlikely goal in such a crowded environment) be worth a year of DTW's career?

BGN publisher Kevin Kinder contributed to this report.


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