No Wendell Smallwood, no problem for West Virginia

Dana Holgorsen has questions about how his West Virginia squad is going to replace Big 12 rushing leader Wendell Smallwood.

Yet, they aren’t the questions that would be expected.

In fact, Holgorsen is confident the Mountaineers’ group of running backs, as a whole, will be better than last year.

“I think our run game will be every bit as good,” said Holgorsen of a squad that ranked second in the Big 12 and No. 16 nationally with 228.2 rushing yards per game.

Smallwood accounted for 1,519 of West Virginia’s 2,967 rushing yards with Rushel Shell ranking second with 708 rushing yards in 2015. Shell returns for his senior season with newcomers Kennedy McKoy and Justin Crawford battling for the primary role.

“Rushel Shell is Rushel Shell,” Holgorsen said. “He would have had 1,000 yards last year if it wasn’t for Wendell Smallwood taking off.”

Shell, a senior, averaged 12.4 carries and 54.5 yards per game as a junior but will need to improve his 4.4 yards per carry if he hopes to lock down the starting job.

“He understands this is his last go around, and the motivation is strong,” quarterback Skyler Howard said. “He’s going to give it all he has.”

While Shell provides a proven running back, the accolades have been rolling in for McKoy and Crawford. Holgorsen, Howard and safety Dravon Askew-Henry each immediately compared McKoy, an early enrollee freshman who participated in spring football, to Smallwood.

“He looked like it was his second or third [spring], he really turned some heads,” Howard said.

Crawford, who arrived on campus this summer, hasn’t put the pads on as a Mountaineer but has already shown the physical gifts to be an immediate impact runner in West Virginia’s offense. A three-star signee from Northwest Mississippi Community College, Crawford turned down several schools, including Missouri and South Carolina to sign with West Virginia.

“I’ve seen limited stuff with him, but he runs different than the rest of the guys I’ve seen in a long time,” Holgorsen said. “His twitch, his burst, I feel really good about it.”

If all three running backs earn carries in 2016, the Mountaineers will have better depth than they had a year ago. Donte Thomas-Williams was the running back with the third-highest number of carries (14) behind Smallwood and Shell in 2015.

Thus, the question is not if West Virginia can replace Smallwood but more likely how the Mountaineers will replace their top running threat.

“What we have to be careful of right now is: Who is the guy?” Holgorsen said. “Keeping them happy, those guys having internal fighting and those guys understanding when we make a decision and it not effecting their play. That’s the only thing that’s concerning.“

Preseason camp will define a pecking order at running back but Holgorsen doesn’t really care if one of them emerge as “the man” to build the running game around like Smallwood did.

“You can committee it,” Holgorsen said of splitting up the carries if needed. “The question is if you’re going to have a 1,500-yard guy or three 750-yard guys? I don’t know and I don’t care; it’s about points and winning games.”