WVU FOOTBALL: Running back position has no shortage of talent

Mel Moraes/For the Daily Mail
West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood carries the ball against Texas Tech last season in Morgantown.

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia feels good enough about the quarterback position to have named Clint Trickett the starter three weeks ago, only days before the coaches took a two-week break from summer workouts. They more or less expected the Mountaineers to gather and practice without them and with the offense following the senior signal caller’s touted leadership.

There is faith in the receivers and the depth based on how last year’s newcomers have finally positioned themselves above last year’s veterans. That should give the offense the proper alignment of players to rely on most of the time and players to rely on in spells.

Mario Alford moved from the inside to the outside last season and flourished, and the senior is said to be the fastest player on the team. Teammates marvel at how Kevin White has developed physically between his junior and senior seasons and how easily he ascends Law School Hill during the summer’s torturous trips to the top. Daikiel Shorts, who tied for the team lead in receptions as a freshman, is seen as someone others can depend on to put in the work during and after the allotted time.

Even the offensive in a search for three new starters and two new tackles has its hope up. Senior left guard Quinton Spain was named to the Outland Award watch list last week, an honor given annually to the nation’s top interior offensive lineman. He and right guard Mark Glowinski partner to give WVU among best interior combos in the Big 12, and with sophomore Tyler Orlosky taking over at center, the Mountaineers like their core and what it can mean to a run game that relies so much on pulling guards and power plays triggered by the middle men.

That sounds optimistic for a team that was 4-8 because of issues at quarterback, among the receivers and along the offensive line, but it’s also characteristic of July as a team bubbles over waiting for the start of preseason practice. And when the Mountaineers do bubble over, they do so because of something separate from the aforementioned.

WVU’s offensive fortune is found in the backfield.

“We’ve got talent,” senior running back Dreamius Smith said. “We’ll use the talent. Coaches see the talent and they’re going to play the talent. You see it as well as we see it. We’ve got a pretty talented backfield back there and we’re going to use every weapon that we can.”

It is the treat and the trick for the fall. Smith was the team’s second-leading rusher last season. Rushel Shell was Pitt’s second-leading rusher as a freshman in 2012, that after a decorated prep career that saw him earn all-America honors and a distinction as one of the nation’s top running back recruits.

Junior Dustin Garrison led the Mountaineers in rushing in 2011 and junior Andrew Buie was the leader in 2012 before leaving school last season.

All those names and accolades somehow manage to exclude perhaps the most valuable player in the backfield. The coaches thought so highly of Wendell Smallwood as a freshman last year that they basically spent the season modeling him after Charles Sims, who earned all-conference and Big 12 newcomer of the year awards in one season with WVU before being picked in the third round of the NFL draft.

Sims was WVU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009 and matched Shorts for the lead in receptions. The Mountaineers hope to plug Smallwood into the role and see similar a similar presence.

Similar stats? Probably not, if only because it would water down the potential of the position. Smith (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) and Shell (6-foot, 200 pounds) are bigger, stronger backs than Buie (5-9, 190) and Garrison (5-8, 180), though Garrison proved in a successful return from knee and hamstring injuries in the spring that he can run inside and outside. Smallwood, who was trusted with carries and the ability to give the offense fresh legs late in games late in the season, is not only the best receiver at the position, but coach Dana Holgorsen said in the spring he was probably the team’s best slot receiver.

How that group ends up after the first two weeks of preseason practice — never mind how it could be affected by promising, newly enrolled freshman Dontae Thomas-Williams — will be a storyline for next month.

The participants are doing their parts now.

“Nobody is late for workouts, nobody misses academics, nothing,” Smith said. “Coaches are judging all of it. They’re not just judging on the field. But we’re all out there coaching each other. We all love each other. We all back each other and support each other.”

Holgorsen has been reminded through his three seasons how valuable depth is at running back. He finally has it there and next to those backs with blocking backs and H-backs like Cody Clay, Garrett Hope and Eli Wellman.

His offense, though, is shaped by finding the most effective combination of five skill position players to join Trickett and the linemen. The Mountaineers figure to frequently use some running backs in various positions to round out that group of five this season.

“We’ve got a few who can line up at receiver with Wendell, Dustin and Buie. Me and Rushel can line up out there, too,” Smith said. “Everyone can do something out there that involves us. They’re going to get us out there however many times they can a game. They’ll put people in different positions and situations and find ways to make the best of it.”

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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