West Virginia’s lead dog returns at the running back position in 2021, but the Mountaineers must develop some others capable of pulling the sled.
Returning – Leddie Brown, Tony Mathis, A’Varius Sparrow, Owen Chafin, Markquan Rucker
Departing – Alec Sinkfield, Lorenzo Dorr
Already Enrolled Newcomers – none
Scholarship Newcomers Enrolling In The Summer – Jaylen Anderson, Justin Johnson
Leddie Brown (5-11, 210 lbs., Jr.) put together a career-best season in ‘20, running for 1,010 yards on 199 carries in 10 games. He also hauled in 31 receptions for an additional 202 yards, and in all scored 11 touchdowns – nine rushing and two receiving.
A native of Wilmington, Delaware, who spent his final prep season at Neumann-Goretti High in Philadelphia, Brown came to WVU in 2018 with a great deal of hype, but it took him a little while to live up to those accolades. He rushed for 446 yards as a true freshman in 2018 but then backslid a bit as a sophomore, netting 367 yards on the ground.
With improved blocking in front of him this past season, he became the 27th Mountaineer to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier, and he did it in a coronavirus-shortened season.
Brown’s rushing average of 101.0 yards per game was second-best in the Big 12 last season and 12th among all FBS runners who played in at least eight games. Add in his 202 receiving yards, and Brown was third in the Big 12 in all-purpose yardage (rushing, receiving and returns) with 121.2 per game, which trailed only Iowa State’s Breece Hall (146.0 ypg) and Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn (122.1 ypg).
Having been at WVU three seasons, Brown reportedly pondered jumping into the NFL pool in 2021, but ultimately decided to return to college for at least one more season. Because the NCAA didn’t count 2020 on any fall sport student-athlete’s eligibility clock, Brown actually has two more seasons of college eligibility remaining.
With his average of 23 touches per game, Brown took a pounding during the 2020 season. He was battered and bruised down the stretch but answered the bell every time and was in the starting lineup for all 10 Mountaineer games last year. Other than WVU’s 56-10 opening game blowout of Eastern Kentucky, in which he still managed 123 yards on just 10 carries, Brown had a combination of at least 18 rushes/receptions in each of the nine succeeding games. His high was 31 in West Virginia’s double overtime victory against Baylor, which included the game-winning three-yard TD run. He had 27 rushes for 104 yards and an additional four catches for 31 yards in leading the Mountaineers to the victory over BU.
After recording a pair of 100-yard rushing games in his first two years at WVU – both came in his freshman season – Brown went over that barrier five times this past season, including a career-high 195 in a win over Kansas that featured an 87-yard TD dash, which is the sixth-longest in West Virginia history.
The 6-4 Mountaineers were 5-1 last year when Leddie rushed for more than 90 yards, so obviously his production was key in the past and figures to be again in the future.
Hopefully COVID-19 won’t be as impactful in 2021 as it was in 2020, and thus college football can return to a normal 12-game regular season. That will be great in many ways, but it also will stack more of a load on Brown. To ensure some gas is left in his tank at the end of the season, WVU needs to develop depth at the running back position to take a bit of the burden off Brown’s shoulders … and ankles and knees and ribs and all the other areas that can ache in a collision sport like football.
Alec Sinkfield was WVU’s main backup behind Brown last season, rushing for 327 yards on 78 carries. Having spent four years at West Virginia and with two seasons of eligibility remaining, Sinkfield has decided to transfer. As long as he’s healthy, Brown is going to get the bulk of the carries this coming fall for the Mountaineers, so Sinkfield, a native of Boynton Beach, Florida, who already has secured his bachelor’s degree from WVU, is going to seek a new school where he can have an increased role.
Sinkfield’s departure leaves a pair of scholarship running backs, as well as a pair of walk-ons, trying to get a leg up on the competition this spring for the No. 2 spot. None have a lot of game experience at the college level, though.
Tony Mathis (5-11, 205 lbs., RFr.) has seen action in 10 games over the past two seasons, rushing 22 times for 69 yards in that period. This past year, he had 18 rushing attempts for 56 yards.
Mathis was a highly-recruited prospect coming out of Cedartown (Ga.) High School as part of the class of 2019. WVU beat out Iowa State, Louisville, Purdue and Wake Forest for the Georgia Class 5AAAA player of the year in 2018, who rushed for 1,042 yards and 23 touchdowns on 169 carries his senior season.
Mathis figures to enter spring as the No. 2 running back but whether he enters the fall in that depth chart spot remains to be seen because he’ll face plenty of competition between now and then.
A’Varius Sparrow (5-9, 197 lbs., Fr.) is certainly is one of those who will be vying for a place on WVU’s two-deep at running back.
A native of Orlando, Florida, Sparrow is a former high school wrestler who burst upon the recruiting radar of major college football programs when he rushed for 2,135 yards his senior season at Jones High School. He helped lead the Tigers to a 13-2 record in 2019 and the school’s first-ever trip to Florida’s 5A championship game.
Sparrow got a few opportunities as a true freshman last season with WVU, carrying the ball three times for 10 yards. He did catch the coaches’ attention for his special teams work on coverage units and played in six of the Mountaineers’ last seven games of 2020.
Mathis and Sparrow figure to get plenty of work in the spring as West Virginia’s coaches try to fill out the running back position, though the reality is WVU would prefer to have at least three capable backs, so it really needs to find options behind Brown.
While Mathis and Sparrow could ultimately be those options, a pair of walk-on running backs will attempt find an opportunity in the Mountaineer backfield as well. And considering their excellent credentials coming out of high school, neither can be overlooked, despite their walk-on status.
Owen Chafin (5-9, 200 lbs., RFr.) hasn’t seen any game action yet in his two seasons at WVU, but he certainly was a force at Spring Valley (W. Va.) High School. A three-year starter at both running back and linebacker for the Timberwolves, he was twice a Class AAA all-state selection. He rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his high school career.
Markquan Rucker (6-0, 205 lbs., Fr.) is another walk-on running back hoping to earn playing time in the future. The former Tyler Consolidated (W.Va.) High School star was a three-time first-team Class A all-state honoree who rushed for more than 4,000 yards and scored nearly 600 points in his Silver Knight career. Also a member of the TCHS basketball and track teams, Rucker was the Mid-Ohio Valley running back of the year in 2019, when he rushed for 1,841 yards on 187 carries, scoring 234 points in that, his senior season.
Rucker and Chafin, as well as Mathis and Sparrow, need to make an impression this spring, because in the summer, they’ll be joined by two more running backs – Jaylen Anderson (6-0, 210 lbs., Fr.) and Justin Johnson (6-0, 200 lbs., Fr.) – who each appears to have the talent to see immediate playing time as true freshmen.
A product of Perry (Ohio) High School, Anderson played in just seven games in his senior season, as COVID-19 restrictions limited the 2020 football season in Ohio.
Still, despite Perry’s shortened seven-game season (5-2), Anderson rushed for 875 yards and 13 TDs, while also catching nine passes for another 124 and two more scores. As a junior he rushed for 1,086 yards and totaled 3,517 yards in his four seasons on the PHS varsity. He achieved first-team all-state status as both a junior and senior, and signed with WVU over offers from Boston College, Duke, Florida, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, Nebraska, Pitt and a number of others.
Anderson is joined in West Virginia’s class of 2021 by Johnson, a highly-acclaimed back from Edwardsville, Illinois.
The state of Illinois canceled fall football, and Edwardsville and others will try to play an abbreviated schedule in the spring.
Thus Johnson hasn’t played a game since he rushed for 1,120 yards as a junior in 2019 in which he was the River Bend Telegraph area player of the year. He has rushed for 2,902 yards to this point in his high school career, and will get at least five more games at Edwardsville, as the Tigers will play a spring season that starts March 19.
Running back is certainly a position where a true freshman can contribute right away, so it wouldn’t be far-fetched for Anderson and/or Johnson to receive considerable action behind Brown in the 2021 season.
Mathis, Sparrow, Chafin and Rucker will try to make a impression on the Mountaineer coaches this spring to establish themselves on WVU’s running back depth chart. If the returnees leave the door open, though, the newcomers figure to quickly compete for playing time once they arrive on campus.