While there is uncertainty at the outside receiver and right guard spot, one group that has had its main players set for quite some time is the running backs. Led by Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood, the Mountaineers have one of the deadliest running back tandems in the Big 12 heading into this season. But with the nature of WVU’s fast-paced offense, the coaching staff is still looking for someone capable of spelling those two when they need a breather.
Donte Thomas-Williams, Jacky Marcellus and Elijah Wellman fought for the third spot through spring and fall practices, and according to running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, a favorite could be starting to emerge - and it wouldn't necessarily be the flashiest or most fleet afoot, according to position coach JaJuan Seider. Instead, the coaching staff is relying on, well, reliability.
“My top three are Wendell, Rushel and Eli, and we’ll go that way,” Seider said after having a few days to marinate on the team’s intrasquad scrimmage that took place last Saturday.
Sure, Thomas-Williams and Marcellus clearly have the upper hand in speed and overall athleticism, but Wellman brings a workman like skill set to the table that has endeared him to the coaching staff. The Huntington native, a Spring Valley grad, played in 12 games last season as a redshirt freshman and recorded his initial career score in the Liberty Bowl against Texas A&M. Wellman's first of four career receptions came in last year's opener against Alabama, and the sturdy back would admit he should have had a score if not for an underthrown ball by then quarterback Clint Trickett.
“The one thing he’s going to be great at is protection," Seider said. "At least when you hand him the ball, he may not go 15 or 20 yards, but he’s going to go forward for two, three, four, five yards. A lot of times that’s all you need."
In today’s brand of college football, you’ll often see backs trying to cut on a dime, change directions and shake up the defense before getting up field. While this works from time to time, it often creates initial hesitation, which allows defenders to close quickly. Wellman doesn’t have that problem; He’s a throwback to the days of the “three yards and a cloud of dust” prototype.
“He’s a kid I always love to hand the ball off to in short yardage situations if I need to because every time he touches the ball he goes forward. He might fall, but he’s going to go forward,” Seider said.
Wellman embodies the work ethic that so many of this state’s residents hold dear. He has been thrown some curveballs in his time at WVU, but he has taken them all in stride and kept chugging along.
“He’s just a kid who bought in. You know, we asked him to come in and play tight end as a freshman. So you had to learn to play a lot of positions,” Seider said. "We took the tight end away from him in the spring just to make sure he could hone in on being a running back because I knew we were going to end up going this way… I can’t say enough about that kid.”
And while some casual fans might not know much about Wellman - he touched the ball just six times in 2014 - that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an impact. Think of him of as Mike Rowe, of “Dirty Jobs” fame, for the WVU offense. He stays back in pass protection, takes on edge rushers and linebackers, and puts his body on the line on most every play to clear a path for someone else to snatch the accolades. Being a tight end/fullback hybrid can be a thankless job more often than not, but his efforts have not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“Eli had a great off-season," Seider said of the 232-pounder. "He’s holding the weight. He’s being physical. He’s moving people at the point. I mean, he’s going against three, four good linebackers every day and we’ve seen him win a lot of those battles. He has really impressed me as a coach.”