Chuck McGill: What a rush — running backs position room has depth, versatility

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Ever been handed a grocery store list and pushed a cart up and down every aisle to get something for each family member?

West Virginia assistant football coach JaJuan Seider has been a college quarterback, high school head coach and running backs coach. He’s perhaps best known for his recruiting acumen, and when he goes shopping for recruits, he crosses off every item on the list and picks up a few goodies for himself, too.

That’s only natural.

“I’m going to make sure my room is good,” said the 37-year-old Seider, who is in his second season coaching the running backs at WVU. “You’re only as good as the guys you got in your room. That’s what makes you a good coach. It ain’t about what you do and what you put on that board, it’s about the players around you.”

Seider has stockpiled.

The Mountaineers return 2011’s leading rusher, Dustin Garrison, and 2012’s leading rusher, Andrew Buie. Senior Dreamius Smith and sophomore Wendell Smallwood are the top two returning rushers, while sophomore Pitt transfer Rushel Shell and true freshman Dontae Thomas-Williams are the most decorated recruits in the running backs room.

Those six have combined for 699 carries, 3,347 yards and 26 touchdowns in college. And, yet, they’ve got a combined 15 years of eligibility left between them.

Good lookin’ out, JaJuan.

“That’s one of the biggest things Dana had lacking early — just not a lot of depth in that room,” Seider said of fourth-year WVU coach Dana Holgorsen. “There were a couple games when he said he first got here and he was down to nobody. He was down to a fullback playing tailback.

“Guys are going to get banged up. The Big 12 Conference is very physical, so you need a plethora of guys and not have to change what you’re doing when somebody goes down.”

So, the Mountaineers are getting creative in how to use each back, keep them fresh and flummox the defense. The “20” personnel — that’s two backs and no tight ends — and the versatility of the six traditional running backs could get as many as three backs on the field at the same time.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Smith said of that possibility.

Hypothetically, Smith (5-foot-11, 216 pounds) and Shell (6-0, 210) could line up in the backfield with Smallwood (5-11, 200) in the slot on one play, and then Smallwood could shift to the backfield on the next play to give WVU a three-back look without changing personnel.

They can all carry the ball, obviously, but to stay on the field they’ll need to block and catch passes, too.

Seider isn’t concerned about the depth chart or how he’ll keep as many as six running backs — depending on if prized recruit Thomas-Williams (6-0, 221) redshirts or not — touches.

“You worry about that when the season starts,” Seider said. “We always figure it out. We played three or four guys last year a majority of the games. If a guy gets hot, you don’t take the hot guy out. When we get back to playing 80, 90 snaps a game, it takes care of itself. When you’re playing 50, 60 snaps a game, then you’ve got issues getting guys carries.”

Garrison, a 5-9, 192-pound junior who rushed for 742 yards and six touchdowns in 2011, said he has never been involved with a position room as deep as the one he’s in now.

“No, never, not at all,” Garrison said. “Right now we have five or six backs in there who, at the snap of a finger, can make a play. It’s important the reps you do get you make the most of them because you know there’s not going to be a lot of reps to go around with that depth.”

The upside for backs starved for carries is the increased chance to keep each of them fresh. That’ll pay dividends at the end of long drives or late in games when opposing defenses are gassed.

There’s more selflessness than selfishness in this position room.

“We feed off each other,” Smith said.

He knows, too, that the best player will play. That’s a carrot dangled in front of the fifth and sixth guys in the pecking order — especially a tightly bunched order — that playing time and production court each other.

“If you’ve got that hot hand, you’re breaking runs, you’re blocking, you’re catching swing passes, they are going to keep you in,” said Smith, who is the only senior in the group. “They see you got the momentum so they don’t want to take that away from you.”

And if Smith gets on the field this fall and is flanked by another running back in the backfield and sees another one of his position-mates in the slot ready to catch passes, well, he knows what’s next.

“I know something good is going to happen,” Smith said.

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