|Wendell Smallwood carries the ball in last year's Gold-Blue Spring Game at Milan Puskar Stadium.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Through the years, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has come up with some clever ways to get his best playmakers the football.
In the 2012, we saw slot receiver Tavon Austin go off in the Oklahoma game with school records for rushing yards (344) and all-purpose yardage (572).
Last year, we watched Houston transfer Charles Sims lead the team in rushing (1,095 yards), receiving (45 receptions) and all-purpose yardage (1,549 yards).
So when Holgorsen casually says that sophomore running back Wendell Smallwood
is “probably our second-best inside receiver right now” before Saturday afternoon’s practice, it certainly gets your attention.
Smallwood had a decent freshman season as one of Sims’ backups in 2013, carrying the ball 39 times for 221 yards and a touchdown while catching 11 passes for another 132 yards as a dual-threat player coming out of the backfield.
But what is most readily recalled from Smallwood’s freshman campaign were a couple of late-game miscues that came at inopportune times. The most noticeable happened during the season finale against Iowa State when he fumbled trying to reach out to score a touchdown that would have put the Mountaineers ahead 38-14.
Instead, Iowa State got the ball at its own 1 and drove 99 yards for a score in a game the Cyclones eventually pulled out in three overtimes, 52-44.
“I made some not-smart decisions toward the end of the year,” Smallwood admitted. “This year my big pet peeve is ball security.”
Immediately after the Iowa State game, Smallwood was one of the first guys in the weight room wanting to get bigger and stronger for 2014. He was also hard on himself during his season-ending evaluations with the coaching staff.
“I thought I could have done much better, so I’m pushing myself to get better on and off the field,” he said.
Now six pounds heavier at 201, a bigger, stronger and much more-confident Wendell Smallwood
is showing the coaching staff that he might be able to take on the same role that Sims had with the Mountaineers last year.
Actually, Smallwood was asked to do the same things Sims was doing as his backup.
“Everything (Sims) did from the slot receiver to the running back they had me doing right behind him,” said Smallwood.
West Virginia’s third-year offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson believes Smallwood is ready to take on a heavier work load in 2014.
“He’s versatile,” said Dawson. “We’re finding a lot of ways to get him the ball. That kid is skilled. Through nine practices he’s got the mental capacity to handle a lot of different things. We’re trying to push the limits to what he can do right now.”
Which means this fall you could see Smallwood lining up at running back, or you could see him lining up at slot receiver in certain situations. And that means defenses will have to keep an eye on where No. 4 goes once the play is signaled in from the sideline.
“It’s pretty fun,” Smallwood said of lining up in the slot. “I like catching the ball, too. I like not having to come off the field because now when they sub for me at running back I can go line up at slot.”
There are certainly plenty of guys capable of lining up behind the quarterback because West Virginia’s cupboard is well-stocked with running backs. Dreamius Smith
, WVU’s second-leading rusher last year with 494 yards and five touchdowns, is returning, as are 2012 leading rusher Andrew Buie
and 2011 leading ground gainer Dustin Garrison
Also in the running back room is Pitt transfer Rushel Shell
, who ran for 641 yards and scored four touchdowns for the Panthers as a true freshman in 2012 before opting to come to WVU last summer.
That’s four proven ball carriers to team with Smallwood, not to mention the addition of prized North Carolina running back Donte Thomas-Williams, who will be arriving sometime this summer. That gives West Virginia a ton of options in the backfield, so you will probably see multiple running backs on the field a lot at the same time in 2014.
Having Smallwood and Buie working some at slot receiver gives West Virginia big-play threats out in space with running back skills. There were times last year when the ball was in the right areas to hurt defenses, but what was lacking was an inside guy who could make a defender miss and take it to the house.
Now, getting players like Smallwood and Buie out in the slot with sophomore Daikiel Shorts
, and those three guys teaming up with outside receivers Mario Alford
and Kevin White
, should force defenses to have to defend the entire football field - perhaps even more so than when Austin and Stedman Bailey were here because of the threats West Virginia now have in the backfield.
Who can defenses key on now? The running back? The slot receivers? The outside receivers?
That is the offensive balance Holgorsen has been seeking for the last couple of years.
“Having the vertical threat at the inside receiver is very important,” noted Dawson. “Last year, Daikiel played as a true freshman and his ability to break through now and gain more yards after the catch – it’s like a whole different person. That’s experience and reps. You’d like to get to the point in your program where you’re not asking a freshman kid to do as much.”
The same goes for Smallwood, who teamed up with Shorts in high school.
“They only played three or four games their senior year because they had a lot of games that were forfeited over there,” Dawson said. “Then you’re asking a kid who played three or four games his senior year to play a whole season in the Big 12. Well, both of those guys tailed off at the end just by the sheer grind. It’s a grind for guys who are three-year, four-year vets. That’s the bumps and bruises of playing young kids and gaining experience.”
But now those young kids are a little older, a little stronger and, yes, a lot wiser.
“We’ve got enough firepower around the ball, we’ve just got to distribute it to them,” Dawson concluded.