MORGANTOWN — You can tell when players are speaking about an upcoming opponent in a manner meant to avoid putting anything up on the opposing team’s bulletin board. The question is carefully considered for a moment before a mildly complimentary answer is presented.
There’s no need to pretend when it comes to Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill. You know his opponents respect him because it blurts out of them immediately.
“He’s pretty quick,” said West Virginia linebacker David Long. “Not too much of a big guy, but he can definitely make you miss and break some tackles. We definitely have to come to play with the front seven.”
Hill is expected back in Oklahoma State’s lineup after leaving the Oklahoma game with an injury to the ribs just five carries in. Banged up or not, the prospect of dealing with him is not a fun one for West Virginia’s coaching staff.
“Anytime you have Justice Hill back there, it’s going to scare you to death,” said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen.
West Virginia would know better than most that Hill is perfectly capable at less than 100 percent. He left last year’s game in Morgantown with an injury after two plays. He eventually returned, finishing with 86 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.
“He’s tough,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “I’ve always had great respect for him as well, just playing against him the last few years. He’s a game-changer. We’re going to have to be on top of that.”
The difference-maker for the 5-foot-10, 185-pound back is his speed. Hill ranks second in the Big 12 with nine runs of 20-plus yards and five runs of 30-plus.
“Some backs are big, strong and will run through you. They’re hard to bring down. This kid can run by you,” Gibson said. “He’s different. He’s so different than any other back that we’ve seen to this point.”
Long said the most comparable running back thus far is Kansas freshman Pooka Williams, whom the Mountaineers held in check for 65 yards. Defensive tackle Ezekiel Rose thinks Hill is reminiscent of the fastest guy on West Virginia’s roster.
“He’s a Tevin Bush type-of-guy,” Rose said. “He can move really good. Very fast. With Tevin, if he gets one foot on the ground, you’re liable to miss a tackle. He’s very good.”
Hill also isn’t the only potential problem coming out of the Cowboys’ backfield.
Freshman teammate Chuba Howard ranks fourth in the conference with 6.25 yards per carry.
Howard was used sparingly early in the season, but came on strong with 80 yards on nine carries against Texas. When Hill got injured last week, Howard responded with three touchdowns and 104 yards on 22 carries.
“The Hubbard kid is coming on and running the ball as well as anybody,” Holgorsen said. “We have to do a great job against the run; they will try to run it a good bit.”
The Mountaineer run defense will also need to keep an eye on quarterback Taylor Cornelius.
Though he has the build of a traditional drop-back passer, the 6-foot-6 quarterback has taken off for six carries of at least 20 yards this year. That’s one better than West Virginia running back Kennedy McKoy and only one long run behind Iowa State star running back David Montgomery.
Oklahoma State’s overall run prowess is a major step up in difficulty from TCU. The Mountaineers limited the Horned Frogs to minus-7 rushing yards last week but will have their hands full against the Cowboys.
Safety Dravon Askew-Henry said the Mountaineers will be ready to elevate and meet the challenge.
“On Sunday, coach Gibby is always going to pull out the plays that we need to correct. It makes you feel like you still have a lot more to improve,” Askew-Henry said. “And I feel like we can still get better. I feel like we still haven’t played our complete game as a defense yet. It’s still coming.”