Certainly West Virginia’s ground attack must improve this coming season if its offense as a whole is going to make strides.
In 2019, WVU managed only 73.3 rushing yards per game, which was not only far and away the lowest mark in the Big 12 but also 128th out of 130 FBS programs nationally. How much of that falls on the offensive line, and how much on the running back corps, is a fair debate, but WVU’s backs need to do a better job of making tacklers miss in 2020.
The most significant graduation loss the Mountaineers suffered at the running back position was that of Kennedy McKoy. Though he finished his four-year career at West Virginia with 2,193 rushing yards, the 16th most in school history, his senior season didn’t go as hoped. He accumulated just 323 yards on the ground in 2019, the fewest of his four WVU campaigns.
Martell Pettaway is also gone, but he played in just four games last year and transferred to Middle Tennessee State for his final season.
Despite those departures, the Mountaineers still have experience left in the backfield to go along with some promising youngsters.
Here is how we view the depth chart at the running back this coming season.
Anticipated starter – Leddie Brown (Jr.)
Though McKoy got more starts at the running back position last year than Leddie Brown, Brown got more rushing attempts. As a sophomore, the Delaware native ran for 367 yards on 107 carries with one TD. He also caught 17 passes for 147 yards. After rushing for 446 yards on the ground in 2018 as a true freshman, Brown was slowed by an injury early last season and didn’t play in the first two games. He had some solid moments in a trio of WVU victories – 70 yards at Kansas, 62 at K-State and 47 at TCU – but really didn’t develop consistency until late in the season. He still wasn’t ripping off long runs – just one over 19 yards in his 10 games – but West Virginia’s coaches did like his improvement in the final quarter of the season. They hope that carries over into 2020. Brown has added a little weight and enters his junior year at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds. The Mountaineers want him to use that additional size and strength to continue powering through would-be tacklers.
Likely top backup – Alec Sinkfield (Jr.)
Alec Sinkfield has been a back on the brink for several years now but never has gotten over the top. The Delray Beach, Florida, native was heavily praised by WVU’s coaches in the 2017 preseason camp prior to his true freshman year but ultimately was held out of game action to preserve his redshirt. An ankle injury hampered him through much of the 2018 campaign, limiting him to just five games of action and 68 rushing yards. Last season he was healthy but rarely got rushing attempts (17 carries for 41 yards) as most of his playing time came returning punts (4.2 yard average) or kickoffs (20.1 yard average).
Sinkfield also has a reputation as a good pass catcher, though to this point he has only nine career catches for 62 yards.
Now a 5-foot-9, 184-pound junior, Sinkfield’s path to more game action is cleared with the departures of McKoy and Pettaway. Brown remains in front of him, but WVU’s coaches have shown the desire to rotate at least two and potentially even three running backs, so there is definitely an opportunity for Sinkfield to get significant carries, even if he’s in the No. 2 role. Still, Sinkfield has to step up to the challenge. If not, others behind him certainly will.
Other key returnees – Tony Mathis (RFr.), Lorenzo Dorr (Sr.), Owen Chafin (RFr.), T.J. Kpan (Jr.)
Tony Mathis, a 5-foot-11, 203-pound redshirt freshman, will definitely contend for a spot in West Virginia’s running back rotation this season. The Mountaineer coaches were able to follow their plan for the Cedartown (Ga.) High alum during his true freshman season, getting him a little game action in 2019, though still maintaining his redshirt. He showed a bit of promise in his limited duty, rushing four times for 14 yards against Texas Tech. Now he’ll look to up those chances significantly this coming season.
WVU’s other three returning running backs are walk-ons – Lorenzo Dorr (5-9, 201 lbs., Sr.), T.J. Kpan (5-8, 180 lbs., Jr.) and Owen Chafin (5-9, 198 lbs., RFr.). Dorr is the only one of those who has seen game action to this point, playing in eight total games and getting four career rushing attempts for 11 yards. Keep an eye out for Chafin in the future, as well. The Spring Valley (W.Va) High product rushed for more than 2,200 yards in his prep career and will now look for an opportunity at the college level.
Newcomers who could see game action this season – A’Varius Sparrow (Fr.)
West Virginia signed one running back in the class of 2020, A’Varius Sparrow, a 5-10, 190-pounder from Jones High School in Orlando, Florida. Sparrow played just two years of high school football, having concentrated on wrestling previously. It wasn’t until his senior season at Jones that he really burst upon the scene, rushing for 2,135 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2019 in leading the Tigers to Florida’s Class 5A state championship game. If Brown, Sinkfield and Mathis can all stay healthy and adequately handle WVU’s rushing duties this season, the Mountaineers will have the luxury of redshirting Sparrow, but he certainly could see action if things ahead of him don’t go according to plan.
Previously In The Series