As the 2017 football season began, few coaches around the Mountain East Conference likely knew much about Calil Wilkins.
Now — through the first two weeks of the season — the redshirt freshman is demanding the attention of the rest of the conference. He has carried the ball 47 times for 392 yards and a pair of touchdowns through two games, an average of 196 yards per game.
“We saw this coming from the time we opened up training camp,” West Virginia State coach John Pennington said. “He’s a great runner who was around the program last year and really used that season to learn a lot. We know that if our offensive line can give him any kind of crease to run through, he can make something happen.”
When players like Wilkins progress as he has from last season to this year, there are usually a few moments that stand out in a coach’s mind when considering the progress that player makes.
Two big moments stick out for Pennington in Wilkins’ emergence in the Yellow Jackets’ backfield. Wilkins spent 2016 redshirting as a member of the scout team, working on developing his game individually. But there were moments in the offseason — beginning in spring practice once the new coaching staff took over and then again when they opened up preseason camp in August — where Pennington and running backs coach Quincy Wilson saw something different out of the 5-foot-7, 201-pound back out of Temple Hills, Maryland.
“We noticed a lot of growth from him. He wasn’t just that talented young guy in the back just waiting to get the ball handed to him anymore,” Pennington said. “In the spring we saw him run the ball in a scrimmage and realized we could be a different animal offensively when he’s in the game. Then he came into camp and was being more of a leader, he was acting like you’d expect a junior or senior to act.
“That was when we realized that he took that talent and put the right mindset with it. Once he gained that focus, and we already knew he could play, it was like, ‘Watch out.’”
The next big step that WVSU hopes to see from Wilkins is finding consistency and stringing together solid performances over the course of the entire season. The Yellow Jackets will have a tough task this weekend against a Notre Dame team that is allowing 124.5 rushing yards per game so far this season. For Wilkins, whose 201 yards against UVa.-Wise were good for the fifth-most in a game in program history, success will come down to continuing in the same mindset that has gotten him to this point and maintaining it through the end of the year.
“He’s speaking up in meetings, any time we do mental toughness or team-building exercises, he is always one of the first ones up,” Pennington said. “This is a guy who came into this year ready to be fully focused on becoming the best player he could be.”
Of course, he’s had the benefit of also running behind an offensive line that has done a great job leading the way through these first two games.
Through two games the Yellow Jackets are averaging more than 254 yards per game on the ground. Before this season, WVSU had just two games since 2013 in which it ran for more than 250 yards as a team. Pennington gives a good bit of that credit to the combination of Wilkins’ running style and the way that new co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Travis Everhart has mentored the guys up front.
“Our offensive line has been very good and Travis has done an incredible job coaching them up and adding him to the staff added a lot to our offense,” Pennington said. “And then, with Calil, he’s such a tough downhill runner. He’s not going to lose yards very often. He always seems to find a way to see a hole and get through for a few yards.”