By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It is difficult to imagine, but the last time West Virginia University produced a running back who gained 1,000 yards was in 2009, when Noel Devine put together the fourth most productive rushing season in Mountaineer history with 1,465 yards.
For the 2011 season, Dana Holgorsen came in as coach and inherited quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, and it appeared as though this school which had produced 1,000-yard rushers the way Ford produces automobiles might never again produce one.
But times change, as do coaches, and as WVU enters the final game of the 2013 season, it is on the verge of adding another 1,000-yard rusher to its list of 12 players to accomplish that feat in Charles Sims.
The senior, who transferred in from Houston for just this year, needs only 54 rushing yards in his final collegiate game — a game in which he figures to be featured — to make it to 1,000.
“I haven’t done it,” Sims said. “It’s a great accomplishment, but just to finish the season strong with these guys is most important.”
Rushing for 1,000 yards while also being tied as the team’s leading receiver is a major contribution, but considering the team enters Saturday’s 4 p.m. Iowa State game at Milan Puskar Stadium with just a 4-7 record, it may be secondary to what could be a far greater accomplishment.
That would be in providing freshman running back Wendell Smallwood with a role model and advisor to lay the groundwork so he can become the featured running back in the offense the next three years.
“Charles has been able to endure four long seasons and a lot of touches and a lot of ball games,” Holgorsen said. “He’s handled it unbelievably.
“Freshman running back Wendell (Smallwood), as a true freshman, is no different. He’s used Sims being in that room to his advantage. He sees how he attacks the game, his work ethic and how he practices. Seeing the versatility that he plays with is going to help him a lot.”
Smallwood is a freshman out of Wilmington, Del., who came to WVU determined to prove himself right away. WVU had Andrew Buie, last season’s leading rusher, and Dustin Garrison, the previous year’s leading rusher who missed much of last season with a knee injury, returning, but Smallwood knew there was a chance to play.
Then Sims arrived and Smallwood saw his work and knew the starting running back had arrived.
“I never heard of him,” Smallwood admitted. “I knew he was special as soon as he stepped on campus. I watched him in 7-on-7 and drills, and I realized he was the guy and I could learn a lot from him.”
And that was what he did, although Sims is a quiet guy who keeps mostly to himself.
“He kind of leads by example, but if I ask him to look at a certain thing, he’ll correct me, tell me what I did right or tell me what I did wrong,” Smallwood said.
“He’s grown over time and gotten better. With his work ethic, he’s going to be a great back,” Sims said.
In a lot of ways the two are similar, both in running style and in the fact that they can be important factors in the passing game.
“He can also catch the ball, too,” Sims said.
Sims leads WVU with 43 catches for 470 yards and two touchdowns, while Smallwood, who is averaging 5.9 yards a rush on 35 attempts, has caught 11 passes for 132 yards.
“A lot of people have some receivers that they stick in the back, but we have something special with him because he can do a little bit of everything. That’s pretty impressive,” Holgorsen said.
Stylewise, the two are similar, although Sims is a bit more evasive, Smallwood preferring to run through or past a potential tackler.
“I’ve got to learn signals. Sometimes I line up at receiver and motion out. I’ve got to learn route running. I have to learn what to do without the ball.”
Can he become as good as Sims.
“Yeah,” he answered, “but I want to be better.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.