Wendell Smallwood’s early leave-taking to the NFL Draft wasn’t a total surprise, but its effects could be felt throughout the entire 2016 season. He had a monster season in 2015, rushing for 1,519 yards (6.4 per carry) and adding another 160 yards via pass receptions. His single-season total is fourth all-time in WVU’s record books, and despite playing just three years he left WVU standing in ninth place with 2,462 career yards. Another similar season in 2016 would have put him into the top five in career yardage.
What really hurts in regard to his departure is that West Virginia doesn’t have a backup behind him that has shown the same consistency. There is plenty of potential, and flashes of the same, but Smallwood ground out yardage, finished runs and blocked with a dogged determination that made him a Mountaineer star while separating himself from the other backs on the roster.
Once again, there’s a hole in the scholarship redshirt freshman class. Two in-state walk-ons, Deonte Glover and Brady Watson, are on the spring roster, but with a crowded field of returnees, juco transfers and true freshmen surrounding them, they will find an uphill battle to gain notice.
One step up the ladder, the focus turns to redshirt sophomore Donte Thomas-Williams, who earned some early notice for his performance during his first year on the team, but struggled through his redshirt freshman campaign of 2015. Thomas-Williams was called out more than once by coaches for his approach to the game, and he did not dress for several mid- and late-season contests. He did suit up for the Cactus Bowl (but didn’t earn a carry), so this spring and summer are huge for him. He must show consistency of effort and a better approach to preparation and practice in order to take advantage of his obvious talent.
This might be the strongest position in the incoming recruiting class. Junior college offensive player of the year Justin Crawford can both run and catch the ball, so he'll get a chance to compete with Rushel Shell for first man up in what appears to be a crowded Mountaineer backfield. As with all jucos, though, there's that catch about the competition level. Other recent junior college backs, such as Dreamius Smith, were never able to turn their juco production into consistent Division I success. Still Crawford looks like he has all the tools to make a run at playing time.
The two freshmen in the class also bring a lot to the table. Kennedy McKoy is similar to Crawford in terms of size and build. He's not a speed demon that will run away from defenders, but he gets a lot out of every run, gets downhill quickly and finishes things off with a bang. He’s already enrolled for the spring, with those obvious benefits, but the big thing for him is seeing how he runs against faster defenses, and in contact drills. Those begin this week, and with just six running backs on the spring roster, he’ll get plenty of reps, both in drills and full contact work, to show his potential.
Martell Pettaway is probably getting overlooked in this group, due to Crawford’s outstanding juco season and McKoy’s early enrollment. He’s shorter than WVU’s other newcomers, but he’s not a speed guy. He runs with great balance and a low center of gravity, and he is just as physical, if not more so, in running through contact and shedding defenders. He is excellent on cuts, and gets upfield quickly, which should help him in making reads of initial blocks and getting the most out of each carry. Don’t count him out in the quest for early playing time.
HOW IT ALL FITS
Shell would be first on a spring depth chart (if one were issued by the Mountaineers coaching staff), but that might be a tenuous spot. Hints during the 2015 season and in the run-up to spring practice indicate that more is desired from Shell, who wasn’t as decisive on making cuts and initiating runs as was hoped for by the Mountaineer staff. If he improves in that area, he will be tough to unseat, as he did put up good numbers (708 yards, 4.4 ypc, 8 TDs) last year. Still, given head coach Dana Holgorsen’s philosophy on keeping backs fresh and not wearing them out, there is plenty of time for others, even if Shell does grab the first-up role Smallwood filled last season.
That battle could be a very crowded one. Thomas-Williams will be under the spotlight described earlier, and McKoy is also part of that early competition this spring. Crawford and Pettaway will join the fray this fall, when carries will be at a premium. That will put pressure on all five to make the most of their chances.
One player who has fallen a bit by the wayside is Jacky Marcellus, who is a different sort of back than the preceding quarter. He’s a speed guy, with excellent moves, but it’s tough to tell how much two knee injuries and surgeries in 2012 and 2014 have taken away from him. Still, he could serve as an excellent change of pace, should West Virginia choose to run the jet sweeps and quick flare passes that would highlight his abilities on the edge and in open space. Those weren't part of the game plan last year, though.
While there might be a handful of carries for a third back, it’s likely that only two are going to hold down the roles than Shell and Smallwood did a year ago. They combined for 399 of the 421 carries from the position in 2015, so unless there are a couple of backups who are neck-and-neck, or who simply demonstrate that they are too good to keep off the field, the fight is going to be a five-in, two-out affair. Shell figures to be one of those, but West Virginia needs one or two others to rise up and grab a spot. That process though, won’t be completed in the spring, and any redshirt decisions won't be made until well into the season.
Played for coach Jack Wright at Northwest Mississippi Community College … led Northwest to its first junior college national championship since 1992 … 2015 Spalding NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year … two-time NJCAA All-American, All-Region and All-MACJC first-team selection … two-year career totals at Northwest CC show 3,161 yards rushing, an average of 6.7 yards per rush and 30 touchdowns … had 41 receptions for 700 yards and six scores … averaged more than 20 carries per game for his career and is the school’s all-time leading rusher … averaged more than 220 all-purpose yards per game in two-year career … as a sophomore, rushed for 1,610 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and 16 touchdowns, to go along with 29 receptions for 394 yards and six TDs … rushed for a school record 338 yards and four touchdowns against Coahoma … totaled more than 200 yards rushing in three other games … MACJC Player of the Week on multiple occasions … as a freshman, totaled 1,551 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns … his 1,551 yards led the state of Mississippi and was fourth overall in JC … finished with 12 receptions for 306 yards … three-star recruit by Scout … participated in the 2014 Nike Football Training Camp … played his junior and senior seasons of high school football for Coach Jeff Battles at Hardaway High in Columbus, Ga. … took snaps as a quarterback, running back, receiver, safety and was the team’s starting punter during his career at Hardaway … team’s offensive player of the year as a senior, having 825 yards rushing, averaging 8.6 yards per carry and seven touchdowns … participated in track and was the Georgia High School State 5A long jump champion (22 feet, 19 inches) … basketball standout at Hardaway, averaging more than 12.0 points per game as a senior … Scout ranked him as the nation’s 42nd best running back coming out of high school … played freshman and sophomore seasons at Gainesville High in Florida … took a late official visit to WVU on Jan. 29 and pledged then … chose WVU over Missouri and South Carolina … one of the best kept secrets in junior college football until late … put up monster numbers in back-to-back years … one has to watch his game tape to truly appreciate his efforts … averaged over 20 carries per game, so he has proven that he can be a true workhorse … runs through the arm tackles and keeps his feet moving, exploiting any weak tacklers on the opposition’s defense … named the 2016 NJCAA offensive player of the year … “This is a huge honor for me,” Crawford told Scout of the Player of the Year Award. “I’m really glad to see that all of the hard work has paid off. My teammates deserve a lot of credit for this award and I share it with them. I’m especially thankful for my coaches, offensive line and my quarterback for believing in me and putting me in this position to succeed. Northwest is a first-class institution and I can’t thank the people here enough.” … Crawford’s dominance propelled Northwest Mississippi to its first national championship since 1992 … had a nation-leading 268 carries … hauled in 29 receptions for 394 yards and six touchdowns … finished the NJCAA championship contest with 15 carries for a game-high 144 yards and two touchdowns in a 66-13 victory over Rochester (Minn.) … “We handled our business on and off the field this season, helping us reach our ultimate goal,” Crawford said. “Winning the conference and national championship was an awesome experience for me and my team.” … The career 3,161 yards and 30 touchdowns rushing are just two of the 15 school records Crawford owns … Also offered by Arkansas, Texas, Georgia, Louisville, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Florida.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Justin Crawford – “If you look at Justin Crawford from Northwest Mississippi, he has a lot of the qualities of Wendell (Smallwood) from a versatility point of view. He has great vision. He can hit the hole quick. He can make people miss, and he is a good receiver as well.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Justin Crawford – “Justin Crawford is a playmaker. He was an important recruit for us once we lost Wendell. He was the junior college player of the year this past season and ran for over 3,100 yards in his two seasons in junior college. He scored 30 some touchdowns, and there’s something to be said about productivity. He’s very versatile coming out of the backfield, can catch and run. He’s three-down running back, so hopefully he can add to our offense.”
WVU running back coach JaJuan Seider on Justin Crawford – “Tremendous player and a kid that does it all. He doesn’t turn the ball over, and he’s a willing blocker. Great with the ball running and receiving. A finisher. He fits our offense as the multi-purpose back we want. He can play in space.”
Graduated high school early and enrolled at WVU for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11, 2016 … three-year starter for coach Mark Holcomb at North Davidson High … three-time Winston-Salem Journal All-Northwest Team (2013-15) … Davidson County Offensive Player of the Year (2014) … helped team to a 33-7 record from 2013-15 and the state quarterfinals in 2015 … rushed for 1,871 yards and 24 touchdowns on 310 attempts in 2015, and also had 43 receptions for 683 yards and seven touchdowns … ran for 2,061 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2014 … established school records for single-season rushing yards (2,061), career rushing yards (5,331 yards), single-season touchdowns (27) and career touchdowns … three-time All-Davidson County first team (2013-15) … Central Piedmont Class 4A Offensive Player of the Year (2015) and three-time All-Central Piedmont Class 4A Team (2013-15) … played in the 2015 Shrine Bowl last month, which is an all-star team featuring a squad from North Carolina facing one from South Carolina … three-star recruit according to Scout.com, which also rates him as the No. 10 running back in North Carolina and No. 42 running back regionally … also big enough and physical enough to eventually play linebacker if running back doesn’t work out … “West Virginia just felt like home and I just fell in love when I visited,” McKoy said. “I also like the offense. It’s similar to what we do in high school. And the facilities are amazing – the weight room, the field – just everything.” … quick feet for a player his size … height doesn’t seem to hurt his pad level … frame to add bulk and strength … also can catch the ball out of the backfield and has the size to attack the ball against pass coverage … “I’m very excited. Coach Galloway and Seider did an amazing job recruiting me,” McKoy said. “I’m really looking forward to going there. I can tell the way they talk to me that they care about me on and off the field. They are good family guys. They want me at running back and slot receiver, kinda everywhere.” … nice cutability … sees the field and makes one cut and attacks vertically … surprising balance for his size … “Coach Holgorsen was on me every other day, texting me and my family and really showing how much he wanted me,” McKoy said. “He’s a good guy and I love how his offense is up-tempo and how they spread the ball around. I’m excited about having the opportunity to play for him.” … was WVU’s 15th commitment, and second from North Carolina along with punter Jonn Young … can run inside or outside … great team player, with a good attitude … also offered by Boston College, Louisville, N.C. State, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Wake Forest.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Kennedy McKoy – “McKoy is here now. He is probably 6-foot-1, 200-pounds. He is longer, and he is very versatile. You can do some very different things with him. He has some of the same qualities as Wendell (Smallwood) as far as being able to run and catch. He has good shake, which we also like.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Kennedy McKoy – “Kennedy has the same sort of skill set as Crawford and Wendell, in that he’s versatile. We can put him in the backfield and hand him the ball, and we can move him to the slot at times and throw it to him. He’s another guy who was incredibly productive, rushing for over 1,800 yards his senior year. He was a do-it-all guy who really made his high school team go. He’s also a really, really smart kid who is already here. Was 200 pounds when he walked in the door. He’s not a guy we’ll have to add a lot of weight to.”
WVU running back coach JaJuan Seider on Kennedy McKoy – “A kid we have targeted for a while. He’s the back that we want every year because of what we do. He’s the Charles Sims, Wendell Smallwood type of mold. He plays in space, is good with the ball. That kid checks all the boxes. Tremendous player and 4.0 student.”
Played his senior season for coach Dale Harvell at Martin Luther King High in Detroit … led team to a 14-0 record and the state championship … MLK High captured the title 40-38 over Lowell on a last second Hail Mary pass … played in the 2016 Semper Fidelis All-American game … rushed for 1,629 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior … career saw him average more than 150 yards rushing per game … before transferring to MLK, played sophomore and junior seasons at St. Clair Shores South Lake High … rushed for more than 1,300 yards as a junior with 15 touchdowns, averaging 8.6 yards per carry with a long run of 80 yards … as a sophomore, rushed for more than 1,400 yards with 14 scores and a long run of 96 yards … three-star recruit by Scout, and the No. 1 running back in Michigan, No. 11 running back in the Midwest Region and No. 46 running back nationally according to the service … roomed with fellow recruit Jake Long at the Semper Fi Bowl … Scout report said that Pettaway is a “compact back who has shown the ability to run through arm tackles. He may not be a track star, but has above average speed, good burst and catches the ball well out of the backfield.” … best asset is his balance and he’s a very smooth runner … has wiggle and elusiveness when he needs to and can run through people when he needs to as well … has a package of skills that translates well to the next level … maybe not a home run hitter but beyond that, he has a lot of positional skills … “I’m trying to come in and help the run game,” Pettaway said. “They have had some good runners there, and I want to build on that. I want the running game to continue to be solid for their whole season. There’s a chance to contribute early.” … visited WVU Jan. 29 … “I had a great connections with the coaches,” Pettaway said. “I like the atmosphere, the rolling hills, just really liked the school.” … committed to June 23, 2015 and despite interest from others, he stuck with that commitment … also offered by Cincinnati, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Martell Pettaway – “Pettaway is a shorter, shiftier front-line guy. He is going to be a good football player. You need all the quality backs you can get.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Martell Pettaway – “Martell Pettaway was a highly-productive high school running back, who played for the state championship team in Michigan. He’s a shorter, thicker back. He’s a between-the-tackle runner who is a one-cut-and-go guy. He’s in the mold of a Quincy Wilson. He can be very, very productive. I think both he and Kennedy will have a chance to come in and compete for playing time as true freshmen.”
WVU running back coach JaJuan Seider on Martell Pettaway – “He dominated the game I watched, and I thought it was just him playing in Detroit. Then I saw him in an all-star game and that first carry he went for 72 yards. That validated what I thought he was. He runs between the tackles, runs through people, he’s violent with his feet, always moving forward. Low center of gravity who gets extra hard yards.”
Previously In The Series: