By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was 17 years ago, almost to the day, that West Virginia University took the wraps off a redshirt freshman running back in a nationally televised opening night game at Pitt, handing him the ball and watching him streak down the sideline to a 69-yard touchdown on his first collegiate carry.
That running back was Amos Zereoue.
On this Saturday, in a noon home game that doesn’t quite carry the significance of the now obsolete Backyard Brawl, another freshman running back will make his Mountaineer debut, and while no one in his right mind would predict that he will take it to the house, even though the opponent is a William & Mary team coming off a 2-9 season, it would not be the most shocking event of the day if he did.
That freshman’s name is Wendell Smallwood and he comes with rave notices from a coaching staff that normally wouldn’t be building up a freshman.
Indeed, on a team returning its leading rushers from each of the last two season, each of whom had surpassed 200 yards in a single game, Smallwood was listed in the No. 2 spot behind Charles Sims, a University of Houston transfer who, himself, may bring back memories of the likes of Zereoue, Steve Slaton and even Noel Devine.
Smallwood’s presence, along with Sims’, shoved Andrew Buie far down the depth chart, the fairness of which may be open to debate, a debate we will go over shortly, that being should the arrival of an unproven freshman wrest a job away from a successful veteran simply off practice and potential.
Smallwood, according to his position coach JuJuan Seider, may just be that special to be able to get away with that.
“The thing Wendell brings to the table is he don’t care about his body … in a good way,” Seider replied when asked what Smallwood’s assets were. “Sometimes you’ve got to speed guys up when they see things. He’s already got a natural feel for pressing the hole and exploding through it.
“‘Hey, don’t tiptoe, GO!’ you’ll have to say. It’s a good thing not to be fearless right now, and he has that quality as a running back.”
Certainly, Smallwood arrived from Wilmington, Del., hoping to earn some playing time, but with three experienced and successful running backs and a highly rated junior college transfer in Dreamius Smith already on hand, how much playing time could he realistic expect, especially early in the season?
“I give that kid credit. From spring to summer to fall he worked his butt off to get to be where he is right now,” Seider said.
Running back, of course, may just be the easiest place for a freshman to break in.
“To me, it’s like the old saying, you’ve either got it or you don’t at running back,” Seider said. “If you over-coach at running back you don’t do any good. My thing is to make sure he understands protection and techniques. If he doesn’t have vision and a natural feel for things, then he’s probably not going to be a running back.”
So, he had the necessary qualities, but Buie had a resume that included a 201-yard rushing day against one of the nation’s college football mega-programs in Texas.
And he didn’t have the home crowd helping him along. He did it before a rabid Texas crowd of 101,000.
With that in mind, even if Buie was to start the season behind Sims, who was a proven star at Houston, should he have been beaten out by someone with no varsity experience?
Seider says that’s the way the game works.
“You can’t hold against guys who weren’t here (Sims, Smallwood and Smith). That’s called recruiting. You’re always trying to make yourself better,” Seider said. “If I’m a smart coach, I’m going to go get guys equal or better than the guys I’ve got playing. If they’re better, I’m not going to hold them back. I’m not worried about hurting someone’s feelings. We want to win.”
And so it was that as he and head coach Dana Holgorsen studied film and watched practice, they felt they saw the program in better shape by putting Smallwood on the fast track to glory while always in the back of their minds it was etched that Buie was the leading rusher on a passing team that finished 7-6.
What happened that Buie is taking a redshirt year as a junior with the future looking no better remains unknown, although a source says he was planning to transfer but somehow messed that up.
Meanwhile, if everything goes wrong, Buie’s redshirt could be dropped, and he could be put back in the rotation.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.