Mitch Vingle: Smallwood emerges as WVU’s spring winner
MORGANTOWN — If you’d input all the data from WVU’s spring drills and spit out the results, you’d see one clear winner.
His name is Wendell Smallwood.
If nothing else, Dana Holgorsen has put together a nice stable of running backs, and almost every time the first-team offense hit the field this spring, there was Smallwood.
On a beautiful Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium, before an estimated crowd of 10,000, Smallwood again was at the top of heap.
He showed a couple bursts, first as a back and then as a receiver in the “H” position. He finished with 10 carries for 45 yards and two receptions for 39 more, including a 33-yard gain.
As it stands now, Pitt transfer Rushel Shell might have the more decorated resume, but Smallwood seems to be the man.
“Yeah, this year I feel I am,” Smallwood said Saturday.
“He’s versatile,” Holgorsen said. “The best thing [former Mountaineer back] Charles Sims did when he was here was to teach those guys how to be versatile. He taught how to practice hard and be unselfish. … They all want to be the featured running back, but now they don’t mind getting in as receivers and catching passes downfield.
“Wendell is probably our second-best inside receiver, but may be the best right now. Obviously we’ll put him in the backfield and get him the ball a bunch — very versatile and productive.”
“I run hard, fast and I can play almost every receiving and running-back position,” Smallwood said.
Last season, Smallwood had 221 yards rushing and a score on 39 carries as a true freshman. He caught 11 passes for 132 yards. Now he’s carrying 200 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.
“He’s just a kid that’s always eager to get better,” said Mountaineer running backs coach JaJuan Seider. “That’s the best compliment you can give a kid. He’s always striving. He sent me a text Thursday. We had the NFL guys [Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Geno Smith] here. Wendell said he didn’t have a good day and was disappointed he didn’t run more receiving routes. He doesn’t want to leave the field. He’s always pressing to get better.”
“I feel great; I feel confident, especially knowing the offense not only at running back, but at receiver,” Smallwood said. “I know the receiver signals. I feel pretty comfortable.”
“The kid isn’t even a sophomore yet,” Seider said. “That’s what’s encouraging. He’s a pretty damn good running back, first off. Then he can naturally go out there and play receiver to help us and take the load off.
“He’s a kid you have to account for on every play whether he’s in the backfield or a receiver spot. Look what we did with Tavon. Look what we did with Charles [Sims]. I mean, you have to account for him every time he’s on the field because he can strike a big play any time he touches it.”
“He’s a kid that gets better every week,” Seider said. “He’s starting to understand and find himself. You saw today he probably has the best footwork of all the running backs. Then he’s so physical when he makes up his mind to be. Now it’s just about putting it all together. He’s still thinking a little bit.
“He’s going to help us, though. He’s going to be a big player for us.”
That, of course, led to the question of whether Smallwood might move to inside receiver to fill a void and get both players on the field.
“We want to have them both on the field at the same time,” Seider said. “We want to be in two-backs [set] and at the same time be in one-back. To take Wendell, though, and put him in the slot full-time would be pretty stupid because I want the ball in his hands, touching the ball. Because we have Rushel, Dreamius [Smith], [Andrew] Buie and Dustin [Garrison], though, we can do a lot of those things.
“We want to be multiple sets out of the same personnel. That’s the key for our offense.”
Apparently, like Smallwood.
While Smallwood increased his stock this spring, two vital team cogs apparently did not. You might remember that last season WVU’s team leaders in catches were freshman Daikiel Shorts and running back Sims.
The Mountaineers clearly needed more from junior college transfers Mario Alford and Kevin White. And on Saturday, Holgorsen didn’t exactly heap praise.
“We probably didn’t make as many plays as we’d like from our outside receivers,” Holgorsen said. “We need to get the ball more to Mario. I’m happy with the way the backs and tight ends have played.”
He said settling on a starting quarterback should help get the pair into a rhythm. Later, though, the coach praised his secondary by saying “Mario’s confidence is probably down because [Daryl] Worley is making play after play after play.”
“They’re holding us pretty accountable on the outside,” Alford said. “We just have to work hard and keep working hard.”
“We need to work on coming off the ball when there’s a run play,” White said. “We need to work on finishing our routes. Sometimes we get tired and our routes aren’t so good. Just finishing plays. Going hard every play.”
“We had a pretty good spring,” Alford said. “We made plays and the defense made plays. I feel pretty good about the spring I had personally. I’m still working on my fundamentals.”
It appears WVU’s offense as a whole still has work to do. Just ask White who won the spring.
“Defense,” he said. “I’m just being honest. [The offense] had a couple good days, but as far as being consiste,nt the defense won. But we finished strong.”
Alford did have a nice 99-yard kickoff return for a score to start the game. (“I just read my lead blocker and cut it upfield,” he said.)
But WVU’s receivers will have to improve before the team meets Alabama.
They’ve got 139 days to do so.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.