WVU running backs look to be a big part of the offense

MORGANTOWN — The throw-and-catch headliners, Will Grier and David Sills, give West Virginia its preseason cred. Within their Appalachia-sized shadows, lurks Kennedy McKoy, who contends a supporting cast of running backs could emerge as scene-stealers.

“People like to talk about Will and David, which is all good and we’re fine with it, but we intend to be the strongest, most relentless group on this team,” McKoy said Monday. “The talent in that running backs room is just amazing.”

WVU’s ground game didn’t approach amazing last season, ranking 69th nationally in yards per carry at 4.25. The after-halftime rushing splits revealed problematic tapering: 3.89 yards per attempt (89th in the FBS) and only six touchdowns (tied for 102nd).

Justin Crawford sat out the bowl game, yet his 191 carries nearly matched the combined 193 by the rest of the running backs. He also became only the sixth Mountaineer runner to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Yet as Crawford tries to make the Atlanta Falcons roster as an undrafted free agent, coach Dana Holgorsen recently summarized, “it’s not like we’re not trying to replace Walter Payton.”

McKoy senses a sweetness about the quartet of running backs vying for playing time. Junior Martell Pettaway wants to relive the electricity he showed in his first college outing against Iowa State during 2016, while redshirt freshman Alec Sinkfield and true freshman Leddie Brown bring juice.

Grier’s backfield scouting report reveals a quarterback who’s willing to trust the run game more:

“Yeah, Sink is twitchy and shifty, and Kennedy is a good all-around football player who’s just got a knack for it. Pettaway has some side-to-side with some speed.”

And what about Brown, the four-star newcomer who looks lean at 211 pounds?

“I think Leddie’s going to be north-and-south with some pop to him,” Grier said. “I mean, he’s huge. By the time he develops in the weight room a little bit he’s going to be real, real big. He’s going to be a special player.”

McKoy also was taken aback by Brown’s physique: “He’s pretty big for a freshman. It was fun to see him in the pads getting after it.”

Ironically, McKoy played quarterback more recently than Grier, thanks to that Wildcat offense unveiled out of desperation at Oklahoma last November. It led to three touchdowns and a career-high 137 rushing yards for McKoy, who suggests offensive coordinator Jake Spavital could re-implement the package for short-yardage scenarios this fall.

But primarily McKoy appreciates being a full-time running back this preseason and no longer needing to split reps in the slot. West Virginia’s receiver depth and the addition of formations utilizing tight ends have McKoy ready to focus on his natural position.

“The passing game just open things up by getting defenders to take the first step back instead of the first step forward,” he said. “Then our offensive line gets a push and we get moving.”

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