Sharing The Load

West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen has made no secret of the fact that he plans to use running back Wendell Smallwood in a manner similar to that he employed with Charles Sims a couple of years ago. With others also deserving of carries and targets in a crowded backfield, how might the workload be divvied up in the Mountaineer offense?

Predicting just how many carries or passes an individual player will get is difficult to pinpoint, of course, due to a variety of factors. There's the matter of opposing defenses, which might choose to focus on on player and try to take him out of the game whenever he's on the field. Matchups and schemes also play a huge role (witness Tavon Austin's stellar game against Oklahoma, when the Sooners played a terrible defensive system against the WVU speedster). Still, a look back at the past couple of years of the Holgorsen offense gives some hints as to what WVU fans might see in 2015.

A year ago, with a potent offense that was nearly evenly split between rushing and passing attempts, West Virginia averaged 84 offensive snaps per game. A year prior, with Sims as the focal point, the Mountaineers had ten fewer per game. That wasn't Sims' fault, so no inferences should be drawn in that direction -- it was simply a case of a less talented team unable to produce as many first downs and extended drives. So, the first question is, how many plays will this offense be able to produce?

The feeling is that while WVU has questions to answer in its wide receiver corps, it has enough firepower at other offensive positions to produce at least 80 plays per game, so we'll go with that number in looking at this year.

Next is the run-pass ratio, which also can affect touches for running backs in a variety of ways. In 2013, trailing in many games, the Mountaineers threw 465 passes while running the ball 427 times, but also got the ball to Sims 45 times through the air. Last year, with better receivers and better offensive output, the ratio remained similar, with 563 rushes balanced against 534 passes. Remember that the first number came with Sims in the backfield, while the second was recorded with Kevin White and Mario Alford accounting for nearly 2,400 receiving yards. So, is it fair to assume a similar ratio in 2015? It would seem so, as WVU has shown a very balanced pattern over the past two years, even with a variety of personnel and strengths on its offense.

There are also some wild cards to consider in looking at the upcoming season. In 2013-14, the quarterbacks, excluding Skyler Howard, only ran the ball under duress in the passing game. The number of designed QB runs might have been countable on two hands. This year, with Howard playing full time, that should change. While the Mountaineers aren't going to give the ball to Howard 15-20 times per game, he's going to be able to contribute to the running game, and figures to get a few designed runs per contest, again depending on the defensive scheme being faced. That's an important part of Holgorsen's strategy of keeping defenses off-balance, and while it's a good one, it will also decrease, at least slightly, the number of chances for others.

Now down to the nitty-gritty. In 2013, Sims had 208 carries and 45 catches in 12 games, an average of 21 touches per game. That doesn't sound like a lot, but remember that it's an average, and that in some games his workload was much higher. Dreamius Smith had near nearly nine per game, while Smallwood had a bit over four.

In 2014, Rushel Shell took the lead with 197 touches in 13 games (15 per contest), while Smallwood's workload upped to nearly 14 per outing as Smith fell out of favor with just six per game.

So, given the assumptions and history detailed above, we're going to assume that of 80 snaps per game, about 42 will be runs, with the remaining 38 going to passes. Remember, there's a big variable on that number, given game situations, personnel, etc., but it seems a reasonable estimate. Of those, this might be one breakdown.

Smallwood: 12 carries, 5 catches
Shell: 15 carries, 2 catches
Howard: 6 carries
Jacky Marcellus: 3 carries, 3 catches
Donte Thomas-Williams: 4 carries, 1 catch

We've left a couple of carries open for the occasional fullback run or jet sweep to a wide receiver, but this could be a representative usage chart for WVU, at least early in the season. One nice thing about a work schedule such as this is that it will produce less wear and tear on each individual back, especially as the season winds down. These numbers certainly wouldn't hold true in every game, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see one player get 30 or more handles in a game, but over the course of the season those totals would be a recipe for fatigue. If one player has a couple of weeks of heavy usage, a shift in workload (so long as productivity doesn't decrease) would be a bonus for all involved.

As always, there are other factors in play, including "riding the hot hand", which is a Holgorsen staple. Smallwood or Shell might assume upper hands based on play and get a few more touches. One of the other backfield contenders could establish their own niche and get on the field more. And West Virginia's offense might be more efficient than predicted, and produce more plays -- and thus more touches -- in 2015.


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