After 15 spring practices, it is clear the West Virginia backfield is the strength of the 2014-15 Mountaineer offense. A five-horse race for carries created immense depth, which will benefit WVU moving forward.
Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie all can play. They all have carries in Division I football under their belts, but it was tough for any of the five to separate themselves from the group this spring despite each individual raising their level of play.
Smith was slated as the No. 1 guy coming into the spring. Smallwood is the most versatile of the backs. Garrison probably had the best 15 practices since he arrived on campus in 2011, and Shell proved he could play after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.
“I think (Rushel) Shell is pretty damn good. One play he’ll make a guy miss, (and) the next play he’ll run a guy over,” said running backs coach JaJuan Seider.
Depth is a good problem to have, but at this point the question is how does the coaching staff distribute carries in fall?
“Everybody at some point is going to feel like they aren’t getting enough carries, or that one guy is getting too many carries,” Seider said. “It’s like, listen, every carry matters. If you get one and the other guy is getting five, make that one count. That’s the bottom line.”
This spring and even in the annual Gold-Blue game, the backs were used in rotation.
Garrison and Smallwood each had 10 carries for 40-plus yards. Shell carried the ball eight times and also made two catches, while Buie touched the ball five times total.
Smith sat out the spring game due to injury, but he shined in three other open practices when he got a fair amount of reps.
“We just slam all those guys in for reps. They didn’t miss a beat. They’re all sound with their technique right now,” Seider said.
Seider said he feels he can utilize the backs similarly come fall. The only exception would be if one of the five starts to play really well and strings together consecutive solid runs, he won’t take them out of the backfield like he did for repetition purposes this spring.
“The only playing five could hurt is if you get a guy in rhythm. Then you want to go back to him,” Seider said.
Last year other Big 12 schools like Texas and Oklahoma benefitted from a deep backfield like West Virginia finally has now. Texas found ways to get Malcolm Brown, Jonathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Daje Johnson carries, while Oklahoma used Brennan Clay, Damien Williams, Roy Finch and Keith Ford throughout the season.
From situation to situation, WVU may need a certain back in the game depending on his particular skill set. The Mountaineers can even use a three-back set, where head coach Dana Holgorsen can get three of the five talented rushers in the game.
Typically, fullback Cody Clay is used as block and as one of the three in the diamond formation, but Holgorsen showed this spring he isn’t afraid to use some combination of just the guys from the running back’s room.
Coming off a good spring, the WVU running backs have an opportunity to build into a strong summer. As every guy is good enough to play, Seider said he feels this is where he can start to develop a plan.
“As a coach and as a program, if you make someone the favorite you’re only hurting yourself. That’s how you lose kids. We don’t play until August,” Seider said. “But you have to start gearing towards a pecking order, they know that. Camp will be here before you know it.”