“Four-Headed Monster” In WVU Running Backs Room
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It is, really, on a football team that has a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback in Will Grier and a pair of receivers on the Biletnikoff Award watch list in David Sills and Gary Jennings, an embarrassment of riches.
It makes you ask, why should West Virginia run the ball?
Yet it will run it.
No, this 2018 season will not look like vintage Don Nehlen, but it probably could, for it has a running backs room that is deep in talent and so versatile that it could have a different running back for every down.
“That running back room is special back there. They are like a four-headed monster,” tight end Trevon Wesco said.
That depth is nice, although even as opening day now approaches rapidly, they are hoping to see someone from the group of Kennedy McKoy, the front-runner; Martell Pettaway, Alec Sinkfield and Leddie Brown to lay claim to the No. 1 role.
“I just want to see a guy step up and I think all four of them stepped up,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said.
So they keep looking, Spavital and new running backs coach Marquel Blackwell, weighing the options.
“I put it all on Blackwell. This guy can make the decision because he’s more focused on them,” Spavital said. “Obviously, they all bring a different skill set, so if you have special plays or unique plays you will substitute that guy in.”
It looks as though all will play … and play a lot, even the freshman Brown.
“Leddie has been making strides,” Spavital admits. Every day, he has a better understanding of it. I feel comfortable with all of them.”
Brown, who is still growing at 212 pounds and still learning, has impressed Blackwell.
“He has a lot of potential. Obviously, he’s what you want physically, but it’s a time thing. There’s no jobs right now. We have time to sort this deal out,” Blackwell said.
“We’re fortunate to have two guys who played in the spring. We have a young guy in Alec who has a lot of talent and ability. He’s shown flashes. With Leddie coming in, he’s running with them, he’s around, and he’s soaking in everything. I think we have a good, solid, competitive room, but there’s no jobs.
“We’re out there competing every day, helping each other along and making sure our bond is strong, because we’re going to need everybody as we go into the season.”
Everyone connected with the team senses the depth.
“I love where that group is at; they’re running the ball hard,” quarterback Will Grier said recently. “I’ve been really pleased with their burst up the field — staying north and south. It’s a really good group; I like where they’re at.
“There’s a couple new guys; they’re all different. Brown might be the biggest; he’s huge. By the time he develops in the weight room, he’s going to be really big. They all bring something different to the table.”
Still, if someone could just be the stud …
“It would be a lot easier if I had a 25-carry guy,” Blackwell said. “They know the deal. I’m a straight shooter. I let them know where we’re at and where we need to be. I let them know what we need to do to be better.
“Until we get that guy to do it, we’ll in a position where we have a good rotation to do it. Whatever we got to do it to win, to be effective, to help out to get to where we want to be, we will do it. “
Two of the running backs have played in the system and showed what they could do as they spelled Justin Crawford.
McKoy is most likely to take charge. He’s a versatile back who can run and catch, who can play in the slot. Two years ago, as a freshman, he rushed 73 times for 432 yards with four touchdowns while catching nine passes and last year moved up to 125 carries for 601 yards with seven TDs while catching 10 balls and even throwing a pass out of the Wildcat formation when Grier was out injured.
“Nobody has a job right now,” McKoy said. “We’re all pushing each other, and we’re all rooting for each other. We’re all together.”
Pettaway was supposed to redshirt his freshman year of 2016, but, eight games in, WVU’s backs were ravaged by injury and he had to start against Iowa State, his debut a memorable 30-carry, 181-yard performance with a touchdown and even a 25-yard reception.
Last year, playing behind Crawford and McKoy, he carried 43 times for 149 yards and two scores.
“You can definitely see the difference from last year to this year.” Pettaway said of the running game this week. “The offensive line has gotten way better since the spring, actually. The running backs, we have a whole group that just brings everything to the table. Everybody has something they bring to the table; it just works for our offense.”
The irony of it all is that the top spot may be decided not by how the running back runs with the ball but on his protection of it and the quarterback.
“Typically, the pass protection separates you from a starting job. Everyone can run the ball. You’re here because we saw you run it,” Spavital said. “There’s a physicality aspect of it. It’s tough. You are one on one with a linebacker. You have to be able to stick your nose in there.”