It wasn't just the pure numbers for Pettaway, who amassed a whopping 181 yards in his first collegiate action against Iowa State, and rushed for 268 total last year with one score. It was the way in which the 18-year-old slashed and gashed the Cyclones, showing a blend of power, speed, agility and downhill running that makes him the most versatile runner in a loaded backfield. There are faster one-cut burners, like Justin Crawford, and more shifty scat backs like Tevin Bush. One could even argue that Kennedy McKoy, who is coming off a shoulder injury and did not practice this spring, has a touch better agility.
But nobody blends the multitude of skillsets like Pettaway, who was under-recruited out of Detroit's Martin Luther King High. What he did at the prep level was so impressive, then West Virginia running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider initially figured it was mainly because of the competition level. But then he kept watching, looking at the ability hit the hole and exploit creases, to finish runs, to utilize a low pad level and grind out each carry. Seider was sold, and managed to so the same with Pettaway regarding WVU. The dividends were evident when Rushel Shell, Crawford and McKoy were all sidelined by the latter point of the first quarter at Jack Trice Stadium. Shell hadn't played the previous four games, Crawford suffered a right knee injury and McKoy was hit in his shoulder, which would remain an issue the rest of the season and is still a question moving forward.
That forced Seider to pull the redshirt with 4:56 left in the first quarter, and Pettaway flourished with the 181-yard performance that earned him Big 12 Newcomer of the Week honors. He backed that with 63 yards on 16 carries against Baylor, and would finish the season as West Virginia's fifth-leading rusher.
"I learned a lot those three games," Pettaway said. "That gave me a lot of experience in how to read the defense and all that stuff. It was fun. I was supposed to play in a few games before, but they held me back trying to hold the redshirt as long as they could. I was ready and I expected (the speed difference). It was a bit of an adjustment, but it wasn't hard. It does (slow down). After the Iowa State game, the second game I played, it was a lot slower."
Things have continued to progress since, as Pettaway has focused on being able to better catch the ball out of the backfield while continuing to build his physical stature in the strength and conditioning program. At a stout 5-9, 208, Pettaway has added 18 pounds since high school, and further filled out what was already a formidable frame. If there's a back the offense can rely upon as an every down player, and one with the stature and skills to move the chains on first and 10 and third and short, it's Pettaway.
"The line blocks good, so it's not just me out there," said the rising sophomore, who finished with 34 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in the Gold-Blue spring game. "I'm versatile. I can do a few things, catch out of the backfield, run over a few guys, get some speed out of the backfield. That's the best asset."
Pettaway noted that new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital's offense is throwing the ball more than the Mountaineers did a season ago. Part of that is Spavital's preference, and part of it is that West Virginia is better equipped at quarterback to do so, with Will Grier. That doesn't mean the Mountaineers are going back to a pure early Air Raid style. There's too much backfield talent for that. But it does mean than Pettaway and the other backs will be asked to catch the ball out of the backfield, both in the flats and on some misdirection plays where they leak out the backside. That has been a staple for Spavital for years, and it's an aspect he has tried to instill this spring in exploring the capabilities of Crawford, McKoy and Pettaway.
"The biggest change is getting used to the new offense," Pettaway said. "Short yardage passing and then trying to open up holes to run the ball.I think we have progressed. There's a lot more throwing than their was. That's the biggest difference. I like it."