WVU Running Back Outlook: Though McKoy And Pettaway Depart, Experience Does Return
West Virginia football, and indeed much of the athletic world, may have halted for now in the face of the COVID-19 threat.
With the grace of God, though, eventually we’ll all return to normalcy at some point, and when that happens, football will be discussed again. WVU fans will want to know what to expect in 2020, so we are continuing with our position-by-position look at what to anticipate from West Virginia next season.
Today we focus on running backs.
There is plenty of returning experience in West Virginia’s backfield, but no matter veteran or youngster, these running backs simply must produce at a higher level than they did in 2019
Returning – Leddie Brown (Jr.), Owen Chafin (RFr.), Lorenzo Dorr (Sr.), T.J. Kpan (Jr.), Tony Mathis (RFr.), Alec Sinkfield (Jr.)
Departed – Kennedy McKoy (Sr.), Martell Pettaway (Jr.)
Recently enrolled newcomers – none
Expected to enroll this summer – A’Varius Sparrow (Fr.)
Kennedy McKoy is the lone graduating senior from last year’s running back corps. The Lexington, North Carolina, native didn’t have the final season he had hoped (323 rushing yards on 99 attempts with another 37 pass receptions for 167 additional yards), but he did finish 13th among WVU’s all-time rushing leaders with 2,193 career yards.
Would-be fifth-year senior Martell Pettaway also is departing West Virginia, as he’s transferring to Middle Tennessee State in hopes of gaining increased playing time in his senior campaign. The Detroit native had to break his redshirt as a true freshman late in the 2016 season when injuries severely depleted WVU’s running back position. He responded with a 181-yard effort to help the Mountaineers to a win at Iowa State, but forfeited a year’s eligibility in doing so. The NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule, which went into effect in 2018, seemed to feature Pettaway as its poster child. He was part of West Virginia’s running back rotation throughout 2017 (149 yards on 43 carries) and 2018 (623 yards on 98 carries) and seemed ready to continue in that role in 2019. But with McKoy and Leddie Brown ahead of him on the depth chart at the beginning of the 2019 campaign, Pettaway got just 27 rushing attempts for 72 yards through the first four games. At that point the decision was made to shut down his season, thus preserving his redshirt and allowing him the ability to come back as a fifth-year senior in 2020. He’ll use that additional year at Middle Tennessee State.
Even without McKoy and Pettaway, West Virginia still returns a nice group backs with reasonable experience.
Leddie Brown (5-11, 212 lbs., Jr.) is the leader of that unit. He was the Mountaineers’ top rusher last year with 367 yards on 107 carries, despite missing a couple early games because of a preseason injury. Brown also had 446 rushing yards as a true freshman in 2018.
Alec Sinkfield (5-9, 188 lbs., Jr.) was limited to five games as a redshirt freshman in 2018 because of an ankle injury. He was healthy throughout 2019, but most of his game action came returning punts. He had only 17 rushing attempts for 41 yards on the year, and 14 of those carries and 40 of those yards came in the first three games of the season. With nine career receptions for 62 yards, the Delray Beach, Florida, native is regarded as a solid pass catcher as well. He’ll try to find an increased role in the offense over the course of the coming months.
In addition redshirt freshman Tony Mathis (5-11, 192 lbs., RFr.) also will contend for rushing opportunities. A product of Cedartown (Ga.) High School, Mathis played in one game – Texas Tech, when he had one carry for four yards and three receptions that accounted for 16 yards and a TD – and very likely will push for considerably more chances in the future. He’ll try to prove himself worthy of a regular spot in WVU’s running back rotation when the fall rolls around.
Walk-ons Lorenzo Dorr (5-9, 200 lbs., Sr.) and T.J. Kpan (5-8, 184 lbs., Jr.) each have been in the Mountaineer program for multiple years. A native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dorr saw some special teams action last season, and he also had two rushing attempts for nine yards. A native of McMurray, Pennsylvania, Kpan has not yet seen any game action at WVU.
Owen Chafin (5-11, 191 lbs., RFr.) is another walk-on running back who was a scout-team members last fall as a true freshman and will now look to make an impression this spring. A first-team Class AAA all-state selection for Spring Valley (W.Va) High School in 2018, Chafin was an excellent linebacker for Timberwolves and also rushed for over 4,000 yards in his high school career. He’ll get an opportunity to show if he can be part of the Mountaineers’ running back rotation in the future.
WVU also signed a running back to a National Letter of Intent on Feb. 5 who will join the team this summer. A’Varius Sparrow (5-10, 190 lbs., Fr.) rushed for 2,135 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior at Jones High in Orlando, Florida, in 2019. Whether he pushes for playing time this fall or is redshirted will likely be determined not only by his own performance when he arrives on campus but also on the health and production of those veteran backs in front of him.
No matter what individual is toting the football, West Virginia simply must get more output from its ground game if it is to improve its offense as a whole.
After averaging a respectable 160.9 rushing yards per game in 2018, those ground numbers dropped dramatically last season to just 73.3 yards per game. Of the 130 FBS teams in the country, only two averaged fewer yards per game on the ground than the Mountaineers in 2019 – Washington State (72.5) and Akron (47.6). And WVU’s average of 2.63 yards per rushing attempt was better than just one – Akron’s 1.75.
“That’s our No. 1 priority,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said in regards to improving the team’s rushing attack, “and there is a big gap between that and anything else we need to do better.”