MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — West Virginia 1,000-yard rusher Leddie Brown sees things coming together in his senior season not only for himself but for the Mountaineers and expects them both to return to the respect the program used to enjoy.
“Us, as a team, we’re tired of being disrespected,” Brown declared during Big 12 Media Day this week. “We’re tired of being the underdogs. I feel like this year we want to show the Big 12 and all of college football we are one of the best teams.”
“I want to do the same thing I did last year, but be even more effective early in the season. I didn’t get 1,000 yards until the bowl game. I feel like I can do that in seven or eight games this year,” he said.
The comment wasn’t said with any braggadocio. Instead, he presented it quite matter-of-factly, even if he didn’t seem to have a true grasp on how his 2020 season had progressed. It was a year in which the Mountaineers would play only 11 games and in which he would have to play through a painful hip injury.
He opened with three 100-yard rushing games in the first four, including the season’s second game, which may have been his best of the year, gaining 104 hard-earned yards on 26 tough carries against Oklahoma State at the Cowboys home stadium.
“I know it was early in the year, but from talking to running backs coach (Chad) Scott I was hitting holes that weren’t even there and I was getting yards out of nothing. That’s something I tried to work on this season. If one of my linemen misses a block, I can still get positive yards.
“I saw in that game I could do what these other backs were doing in the Big 12,” he said of the game. “I had been knowing that, but I finally got a chance to showcase it against equal talent.”
In two previous years he had been a part of the equation, not the answer. He had played as a freshman and gained 446 yards and then added 367 as a sophomore before becoming the man under Brown, who seemed to sense that there were more ways Brown could excel beyond just as a ball carrier.
Coming into this year, Neal Brown decided that Brown was a precious commodity with room to grow, keeping hm out of contact work in the spring so that he could work on his pass catching and route running, an area where he felt he could add to the 31 catches he had for 201 yards last year.
“His growth as a pass catcher from out of the backfield and out wide is something we’ve really spent a lot of time on,” Neal Brown said. “A lot of the skills and techniques our receivers use he’s doing those and is starting to master them. He’s spent a lot of individual time with the wideouts, and you can tell that.”
Leddie Brown gladly has approached this challenge because he sees it not only as a way to make the WVU offense more dynamic, but as opening a clear path into the NFL.
“I can line up anywhere on offense ... running back, wide out, slot receiver,” he said, adding even an unexpected twist at the end. “I could throw the ball if they want me to.”
That should give defenses something to think about.
The point is, though, that Brown’s versatility creates big problems in trying to defend WVU, which doesn’t offer a running threat from its quarterback so it has to do something else to take pressures off Brown.
“Moving around messes up the defense. Coming out of the backfield they can just throw a linebacker on you. If the running back lines up in the slot, they are going to have to bring another D-back onto the field or a faster linebacker. It throws the defense’s rhythm and tempo off.”
Coach Brown has also recruited hard at the running back position so that he has some freshmen now who should add pizazz to the running game, giving Brown time to collect himself and remain healthy. Tony Mathis and A’varius Sparrow return and freshmen Justin Johnson and Jalen Anderson bring strong high school resumes with them.
Last year, Brown’s season was slowed in Game No. 7 when he injured a hip in a 17-13 loss to Texas, a game in which he had only 47 yards in 15 carries. While he bounced back with a 156-yard game against TCU on 24 carries, that would become his last of five 100-plus yard games for the season.
He gained only a combined 113 yards against Iowa State and Army in the final two outings.
“I was fine up to Texas and I hurt my hip in like the first play of the game,” he said. “The staff worked hard with me. I was going through 3 or 4 treatments a day the next week so I could play against TCU. My last three games my hip was a little messed up. If I hadn’t had the training staff I probably would have only been able to play TCU.”
Healthy again, Brown has allowed running back coach Chad Scott to put a polish on his game that is making him into the all-around kind of back the NFL feeds on.
“I feel like he’s one of the best running back coaches in the country,” Leddie Brown said. “Our growth from the 2019 to the 2020 season was big. Nobody believed in our run game coming into 2020. Everyone thought 2019 was how we do in 2020 and Coach Scott took some time off to regather himself and teach us some stuff to simplify what we were doing.”
The result was that WVU went from a meager 879 rushing yards in all of 2019 to 1,351 yards in an abbreviated 2020 season.
Leddie Brown believes he’s ready for that breakout senior year.
“I feel people are still down on me, do not show me the respect I deserve. I want to show them I can catch the ball out of the backfield, I am as fast as any running back in the Big 12 and can run routes like a receiver,” he said.
If he can do that, the Big 12 may have a surprise team growing up in Morgantown.