It wasn't the Rushel Shell-Wendell Smallwood combo that captured the headlines, but rather the pairing of quarterback Skyler Howard with Smallwood, who led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 1,519 yards on the way to becoming a fifth round NFL Draft selection by the Philadelphia Eagles. Howard ran for 502 yards and six scores, and loomed as large a threat as Shell while having far fewer expectations.
Perhaps that viewpoint isn't fair, but that was the reality for Shell, a Scout.com five-star recruit who was rated the fourth-best back in the nation out of Pittsburgh's Hopewell High. When he transferred to from Pitt to West Virginia, the initial thoughts were of 1,000-yard seasons and double-digit touchdowns annually. Instead, Shell has amassed 788 and 708 yards the last two seasons, respectively, with eight scoring runs in 2016. Both years, Shell has been eclipsed by an NFL-caliber talent in Smallwood while remaining a steady, reliable option.
But now, position coach Ja'Juan Seider has seen the proverbial flipped switch with Shell, who has just one more season to prove his professional worthiness.
"He's running with a purpose," Seider has repeatedly said. "I thought he ran with a purpose (in spring). 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.
"I have been around him long enough to know what his goals are. He wants to rush for over 1,000 yards. He hasn't done that in his career yet. He has the dream of playing on Sundays and taking care of his family. It's no different than any other kid who comes in that room. And he wants to win. We are always talking about how you will leave your legacy. It's not just the coaches, it's the players. You have to take ownership."
If Shell can maintain that demeanor, and the edge that accompanies it, he will give West Virginia the exact mix of players it needs for a legit triple threat of abilities. The Mountaineers have a short-yardage pounder and stout blocker in Elijah Wellman, and a pair of fleet-footed backs in Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy. Crawford, a two-time NJCAA All-American and the 2015 Spalding NJCAA Player of the Year, has surprised with his quick-twitch burst and ability to mesh within the scheme so quickly. There's no hesitation in his game, and he's finding - and exploiting - rushing lanes while quickly getting downhill while drawing cautious comparisons to Noel Devine.
McKoy's mark has been his one-cut-and-go style, imperative at this level. At a stout 6-0, 204 pounds, McKoy packs a punch upon contact, and has the extra gear - albeit not to the level of Crawford - to turn 20-yard runs into greater gains. That was a primary aspect missing from Smallwood and Sims, and something fans should expect more of this season. For all of Smallwood's ability, he managed just nine touchdowns last season, and no runs longer than 52 yards.
"I thought we did a great job (scoring) in that last scrimmage," Seider said. "We scored some touchdowns running the ball. I thought we were physical in protection, and I thought we really worked. I thought we ran the ball very physically, and that’s one thing I was proud of."
If the Mountaineers add the home run threat to the bruising play of Wellman - and the renewed focus of Shell continues to hold - West Virginia could legitimately have a trio of options from which to select. It can choose the gutty, every down back in Shell, the big play abilities of Crawford and McKoy, or the pure power of Wellman - not to mention an emerging Martell Pettaway, who is also pushing to avoid a redshirt.
"I think last year we didn’t have Rushel and Wendell in there together very much because there wasn’t really a third," Holgorsen said. "Now that we have a third, we’ll probably get into some more two back stuff. They’ve all shown signs of a guy who we can count on, who looks good, who has the hot hands, who’s tired and who’s fresh. All of that stuff is taken into consideration."
Blend that with Howard's heady, selective running and the ground game could loom as more than a mere complement to WVU's passing.
"It’s a feel deal," Seider said of how the carries are split. "For me to sit here and say this is going to happen, that is going to happen, I can’t. It depends on the game. It could be the first three or four plays. It could be a rotation. It all depends how we feel. We still have two weeks to go. We are really starting to get into Missouri and continue to build on how we’re going to slot these guys and how we’re going to play them and the game plan. The last two days been the first they’ve hit Missouri and started really game planning them and trying to see how we’re going to attack these guys. Then we’ll get into how the rotation and depth is going to be with us going forward."