Mix and Match Backfield Proposition for WVU

Second only to quarterback, the depth chart at running back in any college football program is the subject of much scrutiny. Some programs have a back that gets the majority of the work, while others split the load according to skill sets and with an eye toward being able to withstand injury. West Virginia, under assistant coach JaJuan Seider, is in the process of developing its group this spring.

When the Mountaineers saw one running back graduate, one transfer and another apparently leave active status in the program since the end of the 2014 season, questions about depth came to the fore. Head coach Dana Holgorsen has always been an advocate of having multiple backs ready to play, so with numbers reduced, and no freshmen slated to join the team this fall, the spotlight shone with renewed intensity on the primary ball-carrying position in the backfield. Two moves, one made prior to spring drills and the other shortly thereafter, have opened new possibilities in the backfield, but what the long term results will be is still anyone's guess – including Seider's.

Just prior to the start of practices, Seider said he could not compare rising players to departed veterans, and was hesitant to slot them into predefined roles before he could see what they do on the field. One such possible comparison was raised between Donte Thomas-Williams, who redshirted last year, and the graduated Dreamius Smith, who showed flashes of productivity but never developed into the bellwether back that some thought he could be.

“I can't answer that, because I haven't had that much time to work with [Williams] yet, to put him in those situations,” the always frank Seider said. “Dreamius had reps. He could have been a special player if he had trusted himself.”

Williams' progress has been slowed by an ankle injury through the early spring sessions, so finding out where he might stand in the pecking order and what he can do to help the team is going to be delayed even further. To bolster the numbers in the backfield, WVU not only designated Elijah Wellman as an A back, but also moved Jacky Marcellus, heretofore a wide receiver, into the backfield. Whether that was solely in response to Williams' absence isn't totally clear, but what is evident is that WVU has a number of different styles of backs to choose from. With stalwarts Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood also in the competition, the Mountaineers can potentially range from speed to slash to power. However, Seider doesn't want to pigeonhole any of his runners, or form any preconceived notions of what they can or can't do. For example, Wellman shouldn't be ID'ed as a short-yardage back just because of his size and strength.

“Rushel and Wendell are pretty good, and I like for them to get the ball too,” Seider noted when asked if Wellman was a candidate for third and one carries. “So, it's hard to say. I don't want him to get labeled as a short yardage guy. I just want to label him as a running back.”

That's a smart move, given Wellman's ability to catch the ball. He surprised some with his skill in that area last year, but it didn't come as a revelation to Seider.

“I wasn't surprised because I was around him a lot. I had seen him a lot and saw him catching the ball. When you watched him play baseball you knew he had good ball skills. He's tough. He's a tough West Virginia kid who this program means a lot to. That's the part that he's going to bring. He's going to make the [running backs meeting] room understand that. They are going to know that you don't like West Virginia any more – you love West Virginia.”

The multiplicity of skills is a big factor for Seider, who also touts Smallwood's ability to make an impact in the pass game, a la Charles Sims in 2013. The testing of Marcellus in the backfield could also help in that area as WVU develops a group of players who don't just specialize in one area. Seider explains the roots of that philosophy, noting that it started with the way in which Cody Clay was developed as a multi-position player.

“Just the way we coach those guys, we talked about them playing all those spots. We talked about being a fullback, being a wing back, being a tight end, being a running back. We want them to be football players, not just a position player. That forces your football IQ to grow. With smart guys like that, you can play with great tempo and with different personnel changes within the same group.”

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