Rushel Shell appears to be making his move, continuing his momentum-building performance from the spring in vying for the high number of per-game carries he desires. Kennedy McKoy has been the real thing since his initial collegiate snaps, and has shown continual improvement in trying to earn the starting job as a true freshman. And fellow frosh Martell Pettaway has impressed of late, the Detroit native trying to make this a three-way race as the contact period of camp began Thursday.
Where this ends up is anybody's guess. McKoy has the size (6-0, 204 lbs.), vision and burst to become a major threat in the run game. Shell has busted out of his and continues to run downhill and with the same intensity and focus that made him one of the most coveted prospects out of Hopewell High in Pittsburgh. The senior gained that mindset in spring, and that has thus far carried into the fall. Pettaway, at 5-10 and 203 pounds, is a mix of the previous two, with a measure of Shell's power and portions of the one-cut-and-go abilities of McKoy. Transfer Justin Crawford, he of Junior College All-American and Offensive Player of the Year honors, also figures strongly in the competition.
"Last year you had a lead dog and then you had other guys get reps behind (Smallwood). The year before that, you had rotation by committee," running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider said. "Right now, with three guys - with the way Pettaway is coming along - it's going to hard to keep those guys off the field. All three are pretty good players. How many carries they get? Who knows. That's all dictated by the flow of the game and who's hot and who's not. But I like where we are at. I sleep well at night knowing what I have in my room."
West Virginia went through a dose of addition by subtraction when Donte Thomas-Williams left the team, and it appeared at the end of last season that there was no surefire replacement for the speed and burst of Smallwood, who led the Big 12 in rushing last season. But McKoy made a major initial impression, and has held that while adding strength and explosion during the summer. Pettaway, who wasn't with the team during spring, has maximized his time and continues to bust the impression that his playing against less-then-stellar competition would affect him at the next level.
"You'd be surprised how similar (McKoy and Pettaway) are to Shell," Seider said. "They are all one-cut guys. Charles Sims was really a one-cut guy. You cut too much and all is does is slow you down. I want one guy who sticks his foot in the ground and gets to the next level as soon as possible. ... Our attitude is to press the defense. Rather than them making us guess, we want to make them guess. That's going to be our mentality going forward with this group."
Shell has said he'd like to begin to approach his 30 carry average during his prep seasons, when he felt he was at his best after getting into the flow of the contest and being repeatedly fed the ball. While the senior might be the featured back this season, there's likely no way he comes close to those numbers with the apparent talent and development of McKoy through spring.
"You know, (Shell) never gets enough credit for the way he catches the ball," Seider said. "That's the one thing that nobody talks about. He catches the ball well, and he has a great understanding of how a defense is playing him. He can see fronts so he can make adjustments early. That's what guys don't realize, that being in the system and being experienced and understanding ho teams are playing and taking advantage of stuff, that he can react to that. All I want is for him to pick up where he left off in spring. I thought he ran with a purpose. When he runs with a purpose, he's as good as I have been around. It's when he starts thinking, that's what gets him in trouble."