2019 Position Preview: Running Backs
The strength of the 2019 West Virginia football team comes from the running back group. New head coach Neal Brown said as much during the Coaches Caravan, following spring practice, and he continued to praise the group at Big 12 Media Days. With passing game stars Will Grier, David Sills V, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms all departed for the NFL, Brown’s offensive philosophy in year one will have to be one in which the Mountaineers go ground early and often, similarly to the 2016 team whose focus was to keep possessions, control the clock and lean on an overachieving defense.
Taking a look back at Brown’s offense at Troy a year ago, quarterback Sawyer Smith was the team’s second leading rusher. The year before, quarterback Brandon Silvers could run the ball too. If you watch some of Brown's biggest wins (at LSU and at Nebraska), you'll see an in-between the tackles, read option run game involving the quarterback was vital to victory. Does that give an edge to the “most mobile” quarterback in this year’s quarterback battle? History may be an indication. West Virginia witnessed its best seasons this century with a running quarterback. Pat White finished his career as the NCAA’s leading rusher at the quarterback position from 2005-08, when the team won two BCS Bowl games. In 2016, when WVU won 10 games, Skyler Howard was a battering ram who carried the ball 11 times per game for 36 yards on average.
Faith in any one of West Virginia’s three quarterback’s passing abilities and comfortability in Brown’s new system, at this point, is unknown. Brown has said a starter will emerge in camp and when they know, they’ll make the call. So it’s fair to assume, with an experienced and talented offensive line, that Brown will want to run the ball, and thankfully, he has four unique running backs to use in creative ways. The golden question becomes: how much will the quarterback be involved as well?
With that being said, fans of the Old Gold and Blue have been lucky, since the turn of the century, to witness some great duos and trios in the stable of running backs. From as early as Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson to this year’s core of Martell Pettaway, Kennedy McKoy and Leddie Brown. Come up with whatever clever nickname you’d like for this crew, and let’s not forget a sprinkling in of Alec Sinkfield. Excluding the quarterback, let’s break down this year’s group of ball carriers.
Sr. Martell Pettaway, 5’9” 205 lbs
One could make the case that Pettaway was vastly underutilized last season, considering he averaged 6.4 yards per carry, but averaged fewer than 10 carries per game. He was money against Texas, carrying the ball just nine times, but for 121 yards and two touchdowns. He followed that performance with strong showings against TCU and Oklahoma. His one-cut, downhill running style worked perfectly in sync with WVU’s o-line last year and expect more of the same this year.
Pettaway plays bigger than he actually is, but he’s not by any means slow. He hits the hole with a burst and can outrun a safety. Expect his final season in Morgantown to be his best and he’ll set personal bests in carries, yards and touchdowns.
Sr. Kennedy McKoy, 6’ 205 lbs
After being in Dana Holgorsen’s dog house to open last season, McKoy had 87 all-purpose yards and a touchdown against Youngstown State in week two and never looked back. Like Pettaway, McKoy was vitally important to beating Texas last year. He rushed for 94 yards and caught three passes for a career-high 55 yards in the win. McKoy was even better against Oklahoma State setting career highs with 21 carries and 148 rushing yards with two touchdowns, while adding 54 yards receiving. In the short passing game, McKoy is a weapon, and with inexperienced quarterback play and a new cast of receivers, expect McKoy’s receiving total to jump. He’s fast, he’s got good moves and he can catch, making him arguably WVU’s best offensive weapon this year.
So. Leddie Brown, 5’11” 215 lbs
Brown showed flashes of brilliance last season, which was more than was asked of him, as a true freshman on a pass-first team with two veteran leaders ahead of him on the depth chart.
Brown’s going to be the next in line of great Mountaineer running backs, but once again, he will share carries with Pettaway and McKoy. Any one of the three, Brown included, could be “the starter,” which gives the team depth, if injuries occur, and just like last year, expect the coaching staff to ride the hot hand. When Brown gets his chances, he’s everything you’re looking for out of a runner that runs hard. His stiff arm reminds you of LaDainian Tomlinson and he uses it lethally. Tennessee’s Nigel Warrior (left) can best attest to that. Last year, Brown didn’t hit the hole with the same vision that Pettaway did, nor did he show the same shake-and-bake as McKoy, but he was a bullet that wasn’t stopping for anyone in his path. He’ll go through you, before around you.
r-So. Alec Sinkfield 5’9” 190 lbs
The previous coaching staff raved about Sinkfield during summer camp last season, but after suffering through injuries, fighting for playing time became a challenge. He managed 68 yards and a touchdown, but more very well could have been had, especially if Tevin Bush hadn’t secured the scat back role, following that monster run against Baylor. Once again, with a crowded back field, expect Sinkfield to make his greatest impact this year on special teams as the punt returner, but don’t be surprised if he makes a play that surprises fans in either the short passing game or an outside run play.
The rest: Lorenzo Dorr 5’9” 200 r-Jr., TJ Kpan 5’8” 185 r-So., Tony Mathis 5’11” 195 Fr.
Dorr and Kpan will most likely only see time on the practice squad. With four capable running backs, a mobile quarterback and Bush seeing a few carries, Mathis will likely redshirt this season. Expect him to be the one-two punch with Leddie Brown in 2020.