MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s running back coach has two main goals this spring.
First, he’s trying to continue to expand the Mountaineer rushing attack by making it more diverse.
Then he’s also trying to establish depth behind Leddie Brown, so WVU has quality options when its veteran starter needs a break.
West Virginia’s ground attack was greatly improved in 2020 (135.1 yards per game) in comparison to 2019 (73.2 ypg).
The Mountaineers had most of their running success between the tackles last fall, as they often struggled to run wide. Now they are trying to become equally adapt in both areas.
“We want to improve our success with different rush games,” explained Scott. “Two years ago we were good at the outside zone, and then last year we were good at the inside zone. This spring we are trying to have success with both the inside zone and outside zone, as well as any gap schemes that we have. That way we can be more versatile in the run game.
“With that the guys have to be disciplined with their eyes and understand how to bring defenders to the blocks to make things easier for the o-line to create movement up front.”
Brown was second in the Big 12 in rushing last season, averaging 101.0 yards per game. A fourth-year junior, West Virginia isn’t pounding the Wilmington, Delaware, native this spring.
“He gets all the work he needs. This past Saturday was really the only time he didn’t get any work,” Scott said of this past weekend’s full-contact scrimmage. “Anytime we go thud or limit our contact, he gets just as much work as anyone. We just don’t feel we need to use him in full-contact scrimmages. We know what he can do.
“The thing we’re emphasizing with him is his ability to catch the ball,” added WVU’s third-year running back coach. “He did that well out of the backfield last year (31 receptions), but now we want to be able to line him up at receiver so we can create some mismatches. He has great ball skills, so it’s something he can do.”
With Brown limited in terms of contact this spring, backups Tony Mathis and A’Varius Sparrow are getting a bulk of the scrimmage work as they compete for the No. 2 role.
Each has shown improvement in fundamental areas, said their coach.
For Mathis, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound redshirt freshman from, Cedartown (Ga.) High School, he’s needed to develop patience to better set up his blocks, according to Scott. “It’s become one of his strengths, but it was not before. He’s showing glimpses of doing it, and now he has to do it consistently.”
In his two seasons with the Mountaineers, Mathis has played in eight games and recorded 69 yards on 22 rushing attempts.
He doesn’t have a ton of game experience, but he still has more than Sparrow. The 5-foot-9, 197-pound redshirt freshman from Orlando, Florida, played in four games last season and got three carries for 10 yards.
“He’s got phenomenal speed, but I tell him all the time that he needs to bring defenders to the blocks, and then have the ability to one-cut,” said Scott of Sparrow. “He had a bad habit of chopping his feet when he changed direction. At this level, when you chop your feet to change direction, the defense will close on you fast. He’s now starting to execute the one-cut, and he needs to continue doing that moving forward. If he can one-cut with his speed, that’s huge.”
West Virginia also has a pair of walk-on running backs – Markquan Rucker (6-0, 205 lbs., Fr.) and Owen Chafin (5-8, 202 lbs., RFr.) – who are getting practice reps this spring.
“Marquan Rucker is doing some really good things this spring,” noted Scott. “Last fall they used to call him ‘Dead Leg Rucker’ because he had this long stride and that caused him to struggle running the ball between the tackles. We talked to him about shortening his stride so he could change directions in the tackle box, and he’s done that. I’ve been really impressed on how he’s caught on.
“Owen Chafin is doing well also. He’s been here a little while (entering his third season), and he knows what he’s doing.
“I’m pleased with both those guys,” Scott said of the walk-ons. “They both understand their role on the football team and the need to maximize it, especially on special teams.”
On top of the running backs going through spring drills at this moment, WVU will add two more to the running back room this summer when incoming freshmen Jaylen Anderson (6-0, 210 lbs.) of Perry, Ohio, and Justin Johnson (6-0, 200 lbs.,) of Edwardsville, Illinois, enroll at West Virginia in June.
“We wanted to get two true running backs who had some size, could run the ball and also could catch it out of the backfield. Both of those guys have those attributes,” said Scott of Anderson and Johnson. “They also have a willingness to block, though I’ll have to teach them the techniques once they get here.”
Scott will waste little time getting Anderson and Johnson acclimated to the Mountaineers’ offensive system.
“The process is going to start as soon as they finish (high) school; we’re going to start talking Xs and Os,” he said. “We’re going to take it slow at first, but we’ll start to introduce them to the offense before they even get here.”
Anderson rushed for 875 yards and 13 touchdowns in a shortened, seven-game season for Perry (5-2) last fall. He kept himself busy this winter on the basketball court, where he earned third-team all-Ohio Division II honors while averaging 22.8 points per game in leading the Pirates to a 15-2 season.
COVID-19 issues caused the state of Illinois pushed its football season from the fall to the spring, so Johnson and Edwardsville High are playing an abbreviated schedule now. Helping his team to a 3-1 start in 2021, Johnson is averaging 171.8 rushing yards per game. He now has 3,762 career rushing yards to go along with 54 TDs. The Tigers have one more regular season game left this season, as they’ll visit O’Fallon Township High on Friday, April 16.