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Chuck McGill: Clay, Wellman bring toughness to Charleston

West Virginia junior fullback Cody Clay (88) participates in a drill during a practice at University of Charleston Stadium at Laidley Field, Saturday, April 5, 2014, in Charleston.

The juxtaposition of Dana Holgorsen and the West Virginia Mountaineers roaming the turf of at University of Charleston Stadium with a backdrop of 18-wheelers whizzing by on the interstate wasn’t Saturday’s most peculiar sight.

There were a couple southern West Virginia boys, both listed at tight end/fullback, making plays in front of the partisan crowd. At times, the state natives — former George Washington standout Cody Clay and Spring Valley grad Elijah Wellman — were on the football field at the same time.

“Probably the biggest factor that you can get with those two guys is they’re not just going to line up in the backfield and they’re not just going to line up at tight end,” said Shannon Dawson, WVU’s offensive coordinator. “We’re trying to search the limits of what they can do lined up as the slot receiver.

“If we can have the same personnel on the field and do four or five different formations, you can play faster. We can get lined up and play faster and limit what the defense does.”

Clay, a 6-foot-4, 256-pound junior from Alum Creek, and Wellman, a 6-2, 235-pound redshirt freshman from Huntington, are versatile enough to line up at slot receiver, attach to the line or shift to the backfield and block. The latter formation affords WVU the option of keeping the 500 pounds of pass catchers on the field for short-yardage situations.

One such case presented itself Saturday when the Mountaineers, scrimmaging in front of nearly 6,000 fans at old Laidley Field, faced third down and one. Wellman was lined up at H-back to the left and Clay was affixed to the line on the right. The offense, wearing yellow helmets, white tops and yellow pants, handed the ball to Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, who had all the run-blocking he needed to plunge for the first down.

It’s a look fans should get prepared to see a lot of during the 2014 season.

“I feel like we’ve actually done a lot of tight end stuff lately,” Clay said. “I’m not going to talk too much about the scheme-side of things, but I’m pretty happy about it.”

Clay should be. He had nine receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown last season while Wellman redshirted. Now Dawson’s wheels are turning faster than the ones on those tractor trailers.

“Luckily those guys have really good ball skills,” Dawson said. “Both Eli and Cody have exceptionally good ball skills. A lot of guys like that, that’s their problem. They don’t catch the ball real clean, but those guys have exceptional ball skills, so we can put them out at the slot and do some stuff.”

Wellman is smaller — in terms of both height and weight — but might have more speed than Clay. It is Clay, Dawson said, who is the crafty route-runner.

“If you look at Cody’s body from last year to this year, he looks more athletic now than he ever has,” Dawson said. “Eli might be a little faster, but Cody is pretty sneaky with those little routes. Eli is learning from him. Cody does some good things in those routes that Eli is learning from.”

Wellman, who as a first-year player isn’t yet allowed to speak with the media, could see his role continue to expand as he absorbs what he’s learned from a full set of two-a-days, a season on the sidelines and his first round of spring drills.

“He’s not thinking as much,” WVU running backs coach JaJuan Seider said of Wellman’s development. “We ask him to do a lot. We ask him to be a receiver, we ask him to be a tight end, we ask him to be a fullback. The more he can do it allows us to do even more. He’s the type of guy we can hand the ball off to down the road.

“It was good to see him make plays, especially this close to home.”

Wellman caught three passes for 40 yards and a short touchdown in Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage. Clay didn’t record a catch, but he made his impact felt — quite literally — in other ways.

“They bring toughness,” Seider said. “We want to be tough. Having those guys on the field, Eli is a tough son of a gun. Everybody needs those types of guys in their program.”

That much is obvious, and it certainly goes a long way of dispelling the notion that Holgorsen’s offense doesn’t have room for a tight end or two.

These Mountain State boys can catch. They can run. They can line up together and knock people out of the way.

“Heck yeah,” Dawson said. “Hit somebody in the mouth.”

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