Riding The Running Game

With several options at running back, combined with a lack of proven depth at wide receiver, the storyline of the West Virginia football offseason has been that the Mountaineers will amp up their ground game considerably in 2015. That's an easy generalization to make, but the specifics of putting more responsibility on that play phase are still to be seen.

The diagnosis was easy to make, even for those covering West Virginia from the national level. The loss of two stellar wide receivers, a relatively untested quarterback and the return of four runners with quality playing time made it clear that West Virginia would put a lot on the backs of its backs in 2015. While that assessment isn't off base, there are several other factors that will come into play in determining just what the Mountaineer attack will look like this fall.

Not long after those post-season lookaheads began, West Virginia's depth at running back took a hit when both Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie decided to transfer. Agree with the decision or not, it was clear that the duo stood below Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood on the depth chart, and both opted to move on in search of playing time. While that wasn't a death blow to the running game, it was also something of a hit, as both had game experience.

That left the duo of Shell and Smallwood, to be joined by Donte Thomas-Williams, who turned a number of heads in 2014 fall camp before donning a redshirt, as much due to the crowded depth chart as anything. Then, perhaps a bit surprisingly, Jacky Marcellus took snaps lining up in the backfield during the spring of 2015, giving West Virginia more speed and a different sort of runner than Shell, Smallwood and Thomas-Williams, all of whom rely on more physicality in varying degrees. Marcellus' move also speaks, if indirectly, to the loss of Garrison and Buie, and again gives WVU four players who can line up at the A Back position.

Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman will also be in the backfield at times, mostly as blockers, but with the threat to take a handoff or slip out into a pass pattern and catch the defense napping. Their blocking will be even more important, as they'll have to help an offensive line that is again adjusting after moves and graduation departures.

All that's pretty solid, but what's still to be seen is just how West Virginia will use those players in the backfield. The offense isn't going to totally change, of course, and WVU isn't going to line up in the Southwest Conference wishbone and run the triple option (although three backs on the field at a time will be a part of the attack). Fans may, however, see some different methods of employment. For example, WVU has long run its jet sweeps to receivers out of the slot position, but might Marcellus get some sort of chance with that from the backfield, or perhaps out of motion? There also figure to be more passes to the backs. Mountaineer runners caught 83 passes a year ago, topped by Smallwood's 31 receptions, and it's not hard to imagine the corps easily topping 100 this year, and perhaps going much higher.

Before we go any further, let's note that many of those catches were more like extended handoffs than passes. (So too are the wide receiver screens that get the ball out quickly to the perimeter.) While Clay and Wellman did get out into the flat for most of their 11 receptions, and others occasionally got down the sideline on wheel routes, many of those catches were as much a part of the "run game" as the passing attack. And while more routes or more options and deception may appear in West Virginia's offense this year, it won't be a surprise to see WVU's backs set some personal records in the receptions category. Might someone approach Mickey Walczak's team record of 49 catches in 1981? The only thing that figures to stop that is the number of receiving targets in the group, as most of the backs have the ability to catch the ball.

Back on the ground, the mix of talent could allow WVU to run the ball both inside and out, but two other factors come into play. The first is the performance of the offensive line. WVU's line play has been acceptable to good over the past couple of seasons, but it has been lacking in some areas, notably in short yardage situations. Will the line improve enough to allow Thomas-Williams to power inside, to create creases for Shell and Smallwood, or to spring Marcellus past the second level on a consistent basis?

A look at the numbers from a year ago show good results, but WVU may need more in 2015. The Mountaineers averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt and recorded 182.8 yards per game, but it's difficult to quantify how much those numbers were helped by the presence of Kevin White and Mario Alford tin keeping safeties away from the line of scrimmage. Faced with defenses that might play more downhill until the West Virginia passing attack proves itself, the line will have to show that it can carve out running room against defenders that are more primed to stop the run.

There's a plus side to this scenario, though. In the classic cat-and-mouse, act-and-react nature of offense vs. defense, WVU's attack could work in reverse in 2015. A successful running game could create more room for receivers, and perhaps help spur a Mountaineer air game that is looking for more game-proven performers. That will be dependent, though, on West Virginia successfully running the ball.

A final item to consider is practice time, and the ability to find and run plays best suited to the talents of the backs. While West Virginia won't completely change its offense depending on who is on the field, there will be plays and formations that best suit one player over another. For example, Elijah Wellman isn't likely to run the outside zone, and Jacky Marcellus probably won't be featured on any isos, but each does have strengths and weaknesses that fit a certain play type. Is there time to run each of those over and over and get them down to where they are executed seamlessly? One of the precepts of Dana Holgorsen's offense is practicing the same thing over and over until it becomes second nature, so it will be interesting to see how the offense develops during fall camp, and how each of the runners fits into the game plan this fall.

West Virginia's offense in 2014 was prolific, totaling 6,497 yards (just short of the school record of 6,526, set in 2012). Runs accounted for 2,376 of that 2014 number, but for West Virginia to approach the 6,000-yard mark again this year, the rushing percentage figures to have to be considerably higher, meaning that the level of performance of all involved will have to be even better than it was a season ago.

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