WVU Spring Football Outlook: Running Backs

The names are well-known, but the roles are still to be defined as the running back corps nears the halfway point of spring football practice at West Virginia.

CURRENT ROSTER

With a number of different styles available, West Virginia's running back corps appears to have players to fit every need. Junior Rushel Shell has some thump in his game and can produce in traffic, while classmate Wendell Smallwood was compared favorably by his position coach to Charles Sims as an all-around threat in both the running and passing games. Second-year freshman Donte Thomas-Williams showed enough talent to warrant brief consideration at redshirt avoidance a year ago, and sophomore Elijah Wellman can provide blocking and catches out of the backfield. Recently-moved sophomore Jacky Marcellus has speed, moves, and familiarity with the position from his high school career, while seniors Cody Clay and Darren Arndt will fill the B Back position, which entails lining up at multiple spots ranging from the backfield to the wing to the slot. There's also transfer Michael Ferns, who, if not eligible this year, will certainly have something to offer in the future.

Turnover at the position, especially at the A Back, was big from a season ago, what with Dreamius Smith graduating, Dustin Garrison transferring and Andrew Buie apparently concentrating on finishing out his academic career. That helped spur the move of Wellman to A Back, and also may have contributed, along with a spring injury to Thomas-Williams, to the move of Marcellus from wide receiver. The question of who plays now becomes one of performance and production, but even with the departures following the 2014 season there are still plenty of bodies to carry the load.


RETURNING PRODUCTIVITY

Shell and Smallwood combined to give WVU more than 1,500 yards and nine rushing scores in 2014, along with another 466 yards of receptions. Were those totals compiled by one player, he'd be receiving loads of preseason all-conference awards mentions, but as it is split between two players, notoriety will be lessened, as will evaluations of the group as a whole. That's shortsighted, however, as the duo could equal most of the other top two groupings of returning running backs in the Big 12.

Clay and Wellman didn't touch the ball often, so measuring their contributions by just stats falls short of a judgment of their true worth. They combined for eight rushing yards on three carries and 76 receiving yards on 11 receptions, but the hope is that the latter numbers might increase somewhat this year, given the many questions abounding at the wide receiver positions.


CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS

The S&S duo was certainly productive in 2014, but it has the potential to be even better in 2015. Coaches are looking for Shell to trust in his running style and combine power with a move here and there. If he can do that, he could easily top 1,000 yards, but will he be able to be consistent over the long haul? If Smallwood enables the receiving aspects of his role, he could have a great effect on West Virginia's short passing game, but he has to embrace that role fully.

Wellman and Clay aren't going to be big volume carry runners – WVU has too many other players to fill that need. However, they must take advantage of the chances they get in the passing game, catch the ball consistently, and show that they can be reliable performers when the ball is thrown their way. A total of 25-30 catches for the pair isn't out of the question, but they have to show from the get-go that they can be depended on to grab the ball, especially when plays are set up for them to take advantage of a particular defensive coverage scheme.

The Marcellus move, while not totally unexpected, does raise some durability concerns. At just five feet eight inches and a generously listed 175 pounds, the Florida native isn't going to be running over anyone. West Virginia's recent history is full of smallish offensive players who had a big impact, so this isn't to say that Marcellus can't get it done, but not every player has the moves or collision-avoidance skills of a Tavon Austin. There's no pressure on Marcellus to meet that level of play, of course, but if he can stress the edge on sweeps or take advantage of his speed on some match-ups in the passing game, he could be an unexpected complement to the Mountaineer offense.

Finally, who will fill the short yardage back role? Conventional wisdom says give it to the big guy (Wellman), but assistant coach JaJuan Seider believes that Shell and Smallwood are up to the task. Whoever wins it, WVU must find someone who can get a couple of yards on third and short, or power the ball across the goal line from point-blank range.


SPRING GOALS

1) Settle players into their roles. This may be tough with Thomas-Williams' knee injury (we'll know more about his status on Saturday), but figuring out who plays in what situation is a primary task. Granted, there's a little something to Dana Holgorsen's “we'll go with the guy who has the hot hand” mantra, but we're not talking about a basketball jump shooter here. Jacky Marcellus isn't going to get called upon on fourth and a foot, and Elijah Wellman isn't getting the ball on outside zone plays. Identifying strengths and honing those to fit in the offense is a big key.

2) Making runners a bigger part of the passing game would not only help take some pressure off the development of the receivers, but also maximize the talents of the running back brigade. Smallwood, Marcellus, Clay and Wellman are obvious targets here, but Shell shouldn't be overlooked either.

3) Improve ball security. West Virginia coughed the ball up 28 times in 2014 and lost 19. While not all of those were committed by the ground corps, decreasing giveaways is a must if the won-loss record is to improve in 2015.


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