MORGANTOWN — Elijah Wellman has played just one game — and really only a handful of snaps in that game — as a West Virginia fullback, but already he seems on the verge of something big.
Consider that the first time he touched the ball as a Mountaineer he caught a pass out of the backfield and turned it into a 10-yard gain on third down to keep WVU’s only touchdown drive alive against Alabama.
Ponder, too, his real chance at early stardom in that game. Early in the fourth quarter, on a first-and-goal play at the 5-yard line, Wellman was wide open near the goal line, but couldn’t haul in a pass that quarterback Clint Trickett had rushed and thrown too low. It could have changed the game and put West Virginia within three points of the lead with plenty of time remaining.
“I should have made the catch,’’ Wellman said. “Things happen.’’
Uh, well, actually he probably shouldn’t have caught it.
“If I throw a semi-decent ball he catches it,’’ Trickett said. “That was a hundred percent my fault.’’
But those two plays, in the first game of his redshirt freshman season, seemed to prove something that has long been rumored but until he had a chance to actually perform was little more than conjecture: Wellman could be WVU’s next Owen Schmitt.
“I don’t know about that. Owen Schmitt, that’s legendary here at WVU,’’ Wellman said. “I haven’t played that many snaps to see where I am. We’ll see.’’
West Virginians love the Owen Schmitt types, but they’re rare — big, burly guys with ball skills and a knack for making things happen. Schmitt was the latest and the most iconic, a 240-pounder remembered best for his runaway-beer-truck dash to the end zone in a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma seven years ago, not to mention his head-butting mentality. Before Schmitt there was Wes Ours, an even bigger load to handle at the end of the Don Nehlen era.
Now, along comes Wellman, a 6-foot-1, 238-pounder who might be even more compelling because he’s a West Virginian, one who starred at Spring Valley High near Huntington.
There were hints of what Wellman might become when he was given a few carries during WVU’s open practice sessions last spring, rare for a fullback in Dana Holgorsen’s offense. Then there was fall camp when, just to see what it looked like, West Virginia’s offensive coaches put him in a backfield with fellow fullbacks-tight ends Cody Clay and Garrett Hope.
“He’s not just a meathead tight end that doesn’t have skills,’’ Holgorsen said.
In a way, a player like Wellman seems at odds with Holgorsen’s general offensive philosophy, which is to spread the field and put playmakers in space. Fullbacks are generally there to aid and abet those playmakers, not become one of them.
But Holgorsen is also not one to shy away from something that works. He’s seen the damage a player like Wellman can do, and not just as a bulldozing runner. The third-down play that Wellman helped convert started as one of those jumbo short-yardage sets with Wellman and Clay both in the backfield and Alabama braced for power football. The power fake drew everyone into the box and Wellman caught a swing pass all by himself after he’d slipped out of the backfield.
It was just the kind of play Schmitt was likely to make, and although Holgorsen never coached Schmitt he’d seen the effect.
“Eli is that kind of guy,’’ Holgorsen said. “Owen had tremendous ball skills and he was pretty talented. Eli runs like that. He’s a big, tough kid. Owen had a great career so I can’t compare anybody to him, but Eli is tough and is cut from the same kind of mold. I hope he turns out like Owen. That would be awesome.’’
Wellman’s debut was a bit nerve-wracking in a way because he was on one of the biggest stages he’s ever likely to play.
“I’ve never played in an atmosphere like that,’’ Wellman said. “Coming from West Virginia high school football to the Georgia Dome playing Alabama the first game of the season; nothing compares to that.’’
But he settled in quickly. The third-down reception wound up being his only touch of the game, but the pass on the goal line could have been even bigger. When pressed, even he admits it would have been a pretty amazing catch given that it was behind him and at his feet.
“Well, it wasn’t a great ball,’’ Wellman said. “But I got my hands on it. I could have caught it. I don’t put all the blame on [Trickett].’’
There should be plenty more opportunities, however. Schmitt played just two years at West Virginia after transferring from a Division III school in Wisconsin and Wellman has four full years ahead of him to make his mark. He was asked if he likes the comparison.
“Oh, of course. Owen Schmitt’s always been one of the players I’ve always looked up to,’’ Wellman said of the former Mountaineer who now owns a successful bar in Morgantown. “He’s real hard-nosed and everybody loved him here.’’
Trickett, another West Virginia native who saw how fans embraced Schmitt, can see it happening.
“They’re very similar and you want to make those comparisons,’’ Trickett said. “ I told him if he gets a touchdown he’s going to be able to open up a bar in town and live the rest of his life off it.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.