Running Backs: Veterans Adapt To New Coach
By Brian McCracken
Shortly before the onset of spring practice, Jake Spavital (quarterbacks/offensive coordinator) and Tony Dews (running backs) became the two newest members of West Virginia’s offensive coaching staff.
Although each had previous experience at WVU, they still would have to adapt and acclimate to their new personnel. It didn’t take long, however, for each to realize that the Mountaineers’ running back room was deep, experienced and talented.
For Dews, a long time wide receiver coach under Rich Rodriguez, 2017 represents the first season that he will coach running backs. Although that dynamic will be new to him, he couldn’t have ended up with a better situation. In Justin Crawford, Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway, the Mountaineers return three running backs who each ran for over 100 yards in a game last year. Crawford has the highest expectations of the group after rushing for 1,184 yards on 7.3 yards per carry a season ago. According to Dews, the senior can build on an impressive 2016 campaign if he focuses on the little things in the offseason.
“(Crawford’s main focus) should be to continue to build on last season,” said Dews, who is a native of Clifton, Va. “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.”
That attention to detail is one that Dews repeated when asked about all of his running backs, and it sounds as if he is honing in on the finite details to get the most out of his group. Dews also pointed to the work they have put into film study and noted that the work they’re putting in off the field has already transitioned to improvement on the field.
“I’m very excited about them,” said the 1997 Liberty University graduate. “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 starting to see some of that transition onto the field where in my opinion. They were already pretty darn good and very well coached. I’m fortunate to inherit some guys like that.”
Spavital, who has spent much of his spring studying the Mountaineers’ position groups and grooming Will Grier for the starting quarterback position, sees a lot of possibilities when he looks at Dews’s group.
“I think that running back room is very impressive,” said WVU’s offensive coordinator. “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 (true freshman) Tevin Bush is showing signs that he could be a pretty good player and he should be in high school. 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.”
In fact it’s the depth of the unit that impresses Spavital the most. At most schools there is a big drop off from the first team back to the second team back, but the Mountaineers will go at least three deep at the running back position in 2017 and that’s a big plus when you consider the nagging injuries that Rushel Shell, Crawford and McKoy sustained a season ago.
“You will be sitting there with the (first team) and Crawford will hit a 50-yard touchdown and then you come back with the (second team) and McKoy hits a 50-yard touchdown. As a staff you start thinking, ‘How do I get these guys involved in the game plan?’ because you have three or four pretty dynamic backs.”
One way to get each involved in a myriad of ways is to split them out at receiver and utilize them in the passing game, and while Spavital admitted that he won’t finalize plans to use any at receiver until August, he’s been experimenting with different looks in spring practice.
“I think you have to utilize them all (at receiver),” explained Spavital. “That’s the thing, they’re not all strictly running backs. They can also be out there and play receiver. In spring it’s fun to tinker with everything and to throw it out there and see what happens. We’ll probably get it all sorted out in fall camp with what positions they’re going to play. I think they’re all great athletes.”
The player who is most likely to split out at the receiver position is true freshman Bush, a 5-foot-6, 168-pound jitterbug who fits the mold of Noel Devine and Jock Sanders and can make people miss in the open field. The youngster has caught the eye of his coaches with his big play ability and has already shown flashes of big play potential in spring practice.
“I haven’t dealt with a kid who is multiple like (Bush is),” said Spavital of the New Orleans native who graduated from Landry-Walker High School a semester early to enroll at WVU in January. “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 but there are some flashes out there 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.”
It is still unclear – and will probably remain so until August – whether or not Bush will redshirt in the fall, but what is clear is that he continues to learn and impress. Dews, who has been working diligently to bring Bush up to speed, seemed to echo Spavital’s sentiment when discussing the young back.
“Tevin is doing well,” said Dews. “He’s taking it all in in the meeting room and it’s all new to him but he’s transitioning very well in my opinion. He’s gotten acclimated to school and he’s doing all of the things right in the weight room and off the field. He’s taking it all in and you’re starting to see that transition on the field. He’s starting to make some plays when he gets the ball in his hand. We’re excited about the progress but we’re nowhere close to where we want to be in terms of a finished product.”
While there is no doubt that West Virginia has three capable backs, they do lose a hard runner who can get tough yards on third-and-short in Shell. So who are the Mountaineers counting on to fill that void in the upcoming season? According to Spavital, Pettaway has taken on that role and has shown a knack for getting the tough yards.
“Pettaway is probably one of our toughest runners from what I have seen. If it’s third down and two the kid is going to get it,” explained Spavital. “It takes two or three guys to take him down. That’s pretty good to see from a play calling standpoint.”
A native of Detroit, Pettaway showed that ability when he rushed for 181 yards on 31 carries against Iowa State a season ago.
Spavital and Dews will sort out much more in August when the Mountaineers begin fall camp and really start their preparation and game planning for the 2017 season. But one thing they have already figured out is that West Virginia’s running back room has the potential of making some serious noise when the season kicks off in early September.