MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When a football season ends at West Virginia, players are assigned two things to begin their offseason.
Wendell Smallwood defied them both, and not because he doesn’t care.
“It matters to him,” WVU running backs coach JaJuan Seider said. “It’s easy to see.”
The 2013 season concluded with a loss to Iowa State and a 4-8 record, and the Mountaineers were given a week away to focus on their academics and to recharge their batteries before attacking winter conditioning.
Smallwood was a freshman and still new to the whole thing, so maybe he didn’t know any better. Maybe he didn’t understand the system in place. Maybe he didn’t like the directions.
But don’t think he didn’t care.
“I came in the first day the next week when the season was over and he’s one of the only kids in the weight room,” Seider said.
So Smallwood failed following orders, but in a world where voluntary participation is anything but and spring break is sometimes the sleep you get between workouts, Smallwood passed with exemplary marks.
A while later, the Mountaineers made their individual treks into the coach’s office to meet with Dana Holgorsen and discuss the season. Every player intending to return the following season gave an evaluation of how he played, and you can only imagine the range of conversations or the differences of opinions when a season goes like that last one did at WVU.
Yet you might never imagine how it went with Smallwood.
“I’m hard on myself,” Smallwood said. “I did a lot of good things, but I think I could have done much better. Coach said I sold myself short when I gave my evaluation, but I think I could have done much better. I didn’t finish the year good.”
Smallwood seems to hold himself to a higher standard than many would hold most freshmen, and maybe that’s why he had himself right behind NFL-bound Charles Sims and junior college catch Dreamius Smith. In the end, Smallwood ran the ball 39 times for 225 yards and his 5.7 yards per carry was the best on the team. He also caught 11 passes for 132 yards.
The numbers don’t do that justice, though. For Smallwood and for the offense, it was when and how he was getting those stats that mattered most. The bulk of his work came later in the season, at a time when a lot of other freshmen might be slipping or might be content with reaching a certain point. Smallwood kept gaining ground on Smith and on Sims until the coaches decided to stop practicing Smallwood like they practiced Sims and decided to use the freshman like they were using the senior.
He was running routes and catching passes and bringing in fresh legs and sure hands late in the game.
“My job is to get guys ready,” Seider said. “Everybody got caught up in how good Charles played. Charles was easy. Charles was a fifth-year senior. I took pleasure in watching the way Wendell came along and how he handled the big moment. He played his butt off against Texas. Late in the Kansas game, he was the freshest guy we had.
“And I think the way the season ended motivated him, too.”
Yes, because Smallwood was like so many others in that he was not without fault, that he contributed to the underwhelming record. The Mountaineers were beating Iowa State at the end of the third quarter and well on their way to crushing the Cyclones to skip into the long offseason. Smith ran 45 yards to the Iowa State 11-yard line and Smallwood carried for three and then seven yards and stayed in the game for third-and-goal from the 1.
He crashed into the line, rocked back, leaned forward and extended the ball to cross the goal line, just like he’d seen on television so many times, just like he’d been told not to so many times.
“He’s a young kid trying to score a touchdown, but we don’t reach the ball out in that situation,” Seider said. “There are certain times your reach the ball out — an end-of-game situation, a two-point conversion play, fourth down when you’ve got to get it. That wasn’t one of those situations and he paid for it.”
He did because Iowa State’s savvy senior linebacker Jeremiah George saw the ball and the gap between it and the goal line. He smacked the ball free and WVU went from inches away from a 38-14 lead to ultimately losing 52-45 in three overtimes.
“That’s something that drives him all offseason,” Seider said.
Sims is gone now and a lot of people believe Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, once one of the nation’s most coveted high school recruits, will replace him. The coaches, though, have been grooming Smallwood to do what Sims did for quite some time, and Holgorsen said last week Smallwood is the team’s second-best inside receiver, trailing only Daikiel Shorts, who was Smallwood’s high school teammate at Maryland’s Eastern Christian Academy.
Shell may end up as the starter and Smith could be the changeup in the backfield, but everyone might be looking up to Smallwood.
“He’s versatile,” WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “We’re finding a lot of ways to get him the ball. That kid is skilled, he really is, but he’s got the mental capacity to handle a lot of different things. We’re trying to push the limits to what we can do with that kid. We’re just trying to see what he can do by lining him up anywhere.”