Kevin Kinder \ BlueGoldNews.com

West Virginia Football Fall Outlook: Running Backs

West Virginia has a returning starter upon which it will anchor its running attack, but features several newcomers that figure to make an impact in the offensive backfield. As we move into the backfield with our fall outlook, the overall tenor changes. A strong starter evident, but there is plenty of room for backups to grab playing time. This is offset, though, with a settled coaching situation.

In our spring previews, we focused on the players. In this fall run-up series, we'll go with some different angles on how newcomers and coaches will  fit into the picture with the veterans and players who were on campus for the spring semester, and what has to happen for each group to excel. In this edition, we examine the running backs.

NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING

Junior college rushing champion Justin Crawford and high school standout Martell Pettaway enrolled to probably as little fanfare as has ever greeted a pair of excellent skill players at WVU. That's due in part to the play of early-enrolled Kennedy McKoy, who made a huge impression and grabbed a number of snaps for himself in his first appearances on the practice field for the Mountaineers. He has already cleared the first hurdle, that of showing that he can compete on the college level, which Crawford and Petteway will attempt to get over in August.

As with any juco prospect, Crawford must adjust to the more structured and rigorous pace of a Division I school. In reality, junior college is probably closer to high school than college in terms of all of the things in and around the athletic program, and that's a factor that can trip up even the most talented of players. Petteway is quite skilled in his own right, and had either he or Crawford gotten the early shot that McKoy did, roles might have been reversed. As it sits now, though, the two newcomers will be battling for time behind McKoy and Rushel Shell, and will have limited time and carries in the fall to show they are ready to go in September. That's not a deadline, of course, as either or both could progress as the season goes along and earn more playing time.

COACHING CORNER

With less proven depth, the position counters with a stable coaching situation. Ja'Juan Seider has really come into his own after stints at both Marshall and West Virginia, and he's a salty veteran now who isn't surprised or fazed by anything that gets thrown at him. In a way, that's why it was so surprising to hear him praise McKoy so highly during the spring. Coming on the heels of the flameout of Donte Thomas-Williams, who had a similar fast practice start in his first year, but who couldn't maintain the work ethic and discipline to take advantage of it, one might think that Seider would be reserved in his praise of a newcomer. That didn't happen, though, as Seider, who can always be counted on for a straight answer, gave McKoy high marks.

Some of that, of course, could be designed to motivate Shell, who might not have gotten the most out of his abilities on every carry a year ago. Seider knows the productivity that Shell can generate, and he's pushing him in every way possible to maximize that this year.

Overall, WVU has a nice counterbalance in coaching vs. available proven ability so far in our rundowns. Where there are coaching newcomers, depth and a good deal of proven performance exists. And where the bodies are fewer, there's veteran coaching savvy.

PATH TO EXCELLENCE

As in most of West Virginia's position groups, there's a two-fold path to greatness. In this instance, it's comprised of continuing progress from Shell and the emergence of a number two guy to step into Shell's former role along with a versatile player who can fill a few snaps as another relief player and a pass catcher.

For Shell, it's simple. Get the most out of every carry and finish every run. At times over his career, he has danced a bit much, looking for the home run rather than the solid single. If he hits his steps hard and runs through contact the way he is capable, he will have a big senior season and get some of the attention from the NFL that former backfield mate Wendell Smallwood parlayed into a draft choice this past spring.

To meet the second challenge, WVU will watch and evaluate the progress of a number of contenders. McKoy, being on campus in the spring, has garnered the most buzz, but Crawford and Petteway will get their chances. One of them will need to come through quickly to keep head coach Dana Holgorsen's plans of a balanced running game on the books. If both of these things happen, WVU will have a much better running game than anticipated. If not, it will struggle to come close to last year's rushing totals.

THE OVERALL

In a way, the running back group reminds of some receiving corps of the past few years. We know the names, but do we really know what we're going to see on the field? Shell is the only true proven performer, and his final arc in a Mountaineer uniform is still to be determined. The rest are almost total unknowns, and no one, not even Seider and Holgorsen, will get their first results until September rolls around. Of course, that's not the finish line – it's just the start. But there are perhaps more questions about just what the running game will look like this year than many might think heading into the season.

Last year, WVU gained 3,308 yards on the ground, with 2,270 of those coming from the players in this group. Only 708 of those yards return – in fact, Skyler Howard is the team's second leading returning rusher with 502. Holgorsen doesn't want Howard exposed to that much contact this year, but that hinges on two items – better pass protection, which will result in less scrambling, and the emergence of at least one dependable teammate in the backfield for Shell.

What did we think prior to spring practice? Check out our pre-spring thoughts!

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