Position Glance: WVU Running Backs
By Greg Hunter
Few positions on the Mountaineers’ 2017 football team appear to be as strong and as deep as its running back corps.
Besides senior Justin Crawford, who was third in the Big 12 in rushing last year with 1,184 yards, West Virginia also returns two sophomores who proved themselves in the heat of battle in 2016 – Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. Add to this trio a couple of promising true freshmen – Tevin Bush and Alec Sinkfield – and WVU has one of the better running back groups in all of college football.
Crawford is the main cog, as the 6-foot, 202-pound senior from Columbus, Ga., was third in the Big 12 in rushing last year with 1,184 yards on 163 carries with four touchdowns. He eclipsed 100 yards in five games in 2016, topped by a 331-yard effort in a loss to Oklahoma, which is the third-best single-game performance in Mountaineer football history. The 2015 national junior college offensive player of the year while at Northwest Mississippi Community College, Crawford averaged 7.3 yards per carry for WVU last year. That was the best mark in the Big 12 and sixth best nationally. His average of 91.1 yards per game in 2016 is tops among all Big 12 returnees this year, as the three above him – Texas’ D’Onta Foreman (184.4), Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon (106.2) and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (106.0) – have all moved on to the NFL. In all, West Virginia has had a running back reach 1,000 yards in 16 of the past 21 seasons. Crawford will go for two in a row personally this coming season, and 17 of 22 for the position.
In addition, Crawford was a solid passing target out of the backfield, catching 14 passes for 68 yards.
“His main focus should be to continue to build on last season,” said WVU’s first-year running back coach Tony Dews of Crawford. “He has a tremendous work ethic, and now he needs to continue to develop and grow in the attention to detail part of the game.”
Despite playing with a shoulder injury that limited him the second half of his true freshman season, McKoy still managed to see snaps in all 13 games, rushing for 472 yards on 73 carries with four TDs. His total was third among all WVU backs behind only Crawford and Rushel Shell (514 yards), who has graduated and since has signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Statistically the best performance for the 6-foot, 204-pound McKoy came in a blowout win over Kansas, when he had 127 yards on 18 carries. But his gutsiest effort came in a victory over Texas, when he was basically WVU’s only healthy running back and still battered his way for 73 yards on 25 carries. The Lexington, N.C., product also proved himself to be a capable pass catcher, hauling in nine tosses on the season for 64 yards.
Shell, Crawford and McKoy each battled injuries coming down the stretch of the 2016 season, and that ultimately led to game action for Pettaway. A preseason injury of his own caused the 5-foot-10, 203-pound Detroit native to miss a good bit of practice time in August. With three other backs in front of him, and his own development a bit delayed, WVU’s coaches kept Pettaway on the sidelines for the first 10 games with the hopes of redshirting him. But heading to Iowa State for game 11 on Nov. 26, then West Virginia running back coach JaJuan Seider, who has since left for the University of Florida, began getting Pettaway ready, as Shell was out with an ankle injury and Crawford and McKoy were both gimpy. As fate would have it, Crawford and McKoy lasted only a few plays each in Ames, and suddenly the true freshman from Michigan was thrust into action. He responded with a nearly flawless 181-yard rushing performance, toting the ball 30 times, which was more than any Mountaineer in four years. He also caught a pass for 25 yards in helping lead West Virginia to a crucial 49-19 victory over the Cyclones. With his redshirt broken, Pettaway also saw action in the following game, carrying the ball 16 times for 63 times in the regular season finale against Baylor, and then got three rushing attempts for 16 yards in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
“I’m very excited about all of them,” Dews said of his veteran running backs. “They’re doing everything they’re asked to do, and they’re working extremely hard. They have progressed very well in getting used to a new coach and a different style of coaching. I think they have done a really good job in the meeting room in understanding what we’re trying to do, and they pay attention to detail. I’m fortunate to inherit guys like that.”
Added to this trio are Bush, who enrolled at WVU in January and was a sensation in the spring, and also Sinkfield, who will arrive at West Virginia this summer.
Bush is a 5-foot-6, 168-pound jitterbug who fits the mold of former Mountaineers’ Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. Like the diminutive Devine and Saunders, Bush can make people miss in the open field. He caught the eye of his coaches with his big play ability in spring practice. Bush can line up in the backfield or split out to slot receiver. As a senior at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans, he totaled more than 2,500 all-purpose yards with 29 TDs.
“I haven’t dealt with a kid who is multiple like (Bush is),” said WVU offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “He can do all of the backfield stuff, and he can run receiver, too. He shows signs of being a good one, but he still has a ways to go. There are some flashes out there, though, where he shows his explosiveness. You don’t want to put too much pressure on him, but he’s showing signs that he’s continuing to grow and learn, and I think you can create a package for someone with that type of ability.”
Sinkfield is also a multi-dimensional threat who can both take a handoff or haul in a pass. WVU coaches have compared his skill set to that of Wendell Smallwood, as the 5-foot-10, 173-pound Sinkfield rushed for 2,231 yards in his career at American Heritage High School in Delray Beach, Fla., while also registering 1,046 career receiving yards.
“I think that running back room is very impressive,” noted Spavital. “It’s one of the better ones in the country when you look at the depth of it with McKoy and Pettaway and Crawford. Even Tevin Bush has shown that he could be a pretty good player. I like how good these kids are. You usually scheme to get run plays to four, five, six and sometimes 10 yards, but these guys can get 40- and 50-yard touchdowns, and that’s something you can’t coach.”