By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If you, like those of us who grew up watching running backs from Marion Motley to Jim Brown to O.J. Simpson to Barry Sanders dominate the game of football and games of football, have missed that approach at West Virginia University since Dana Holgorsen walked through that unopen door four years ago, there is hope that things are on the edge of change.
After this most current signing day, WVU is running back heavy and seems determined to protect itself should an unproven aerial attack fail as it did a year ago.
Make no doubt, this year’s team goes into spring camp in a couple of weeks with quarterback issues.
Its best quarterback, William Crest, who signed days ago out of Baltimore’s Dunbar High, will not be around for spring practice, and while he has the makings of a star quarterback, perhaps even in the mode of Geno Smith, it’s pure folly to imagine he will be ready to start the season by opening day.
You might recall that even Pat White shared quarterback duties early in his first season with Adam Bednarik and didn’t get to start until after Bednarik was injured.
A junior college recruit, Skyler Howard, with encouraging numbers and potential at Riverside in California, will be given a chance to prove himself out of the spring over a couple of holdovers. Paul Millard will be competing in camp but also will have his mind on baseball, which he plans to play this year around spring football practice, while last year’s starter, Clint Trickett, is recovering from minor shoulder surgery, and while expected to take part in drills after a while is not expected to start.
With the passing game this suspect, Holgorsen and his brain trust opted to stock up on running backs with potential, especially after Charles Sims wound up Holgorsen’s first 1,000-yard running back during his term at WVU without really trying.
In fact, Sims appears to have been badly underutilized in the role of runner as he now has grown into a potential first-round NFL draft pick, recently named the best back at the Senior Bowl.
With the pass out of a Holgorsen offense serving as a distraction from defending the running game, and right now with his running backs perhaps his best option, one can see this year’s team actually leaning toward the run.
It begins with a signing day surprise out of Durham, N.C., by the name of Donte Thomas-Williams.
“We had a good surprise today in (running back) Donte Thomas-Williams out of North Carolina. He was one of our highest targets at running back,” Holgorsen said on signing day.
It appears he was a pretty high target of quite a few schools of some football repute, having received offers from Florida State, Ohio State, Clemson, Florida and Louisville.
Thomas-Williams is a big back with four stars after his name on the recruiting lists.
Even though WVU’s running back pantry was well stocked, you make room for this kind of prospect.
“He was a guy we couldn’t pass up. He was too good,” running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said. “He’s a guy who’s going to come here next year and push these guys, in my opinion. He’s young and you don’t need him to play next year, but you’re still going to give him every opportunity to go out there and see what he can do.’’
WVU already had on hand its leading rushers from 2011 in Dustin Garrison, whose 2013 year was spent trying to recover from knee surgery, and 2012 in Andrew Buie, who left the team last season and went home for a semester before returning.
Neither gained 1,000 yards, but each came fairly close and Garrison put together a 291-yard performance against Bowling Green, which served as the school single-game record until Tavon Austin was asked to play running back for a day against Oklahoma.
Also back is last year’s big back, Dreamius Smith, and a smaller back in Wendell Smallwood, who took over Buie’s duties.
The Mountaineers also get to add another major recruiting coup in Rushel Shell, once a big-time Pitt recruit who rushed for 400 yards as a freshman, decided to transfer out west, then backed out of the transfer wanting to remain close to his child.
Pitt, however, would not take him back, but Holgorsen would, and that gives him what really may be too many backs ... although don’t tell that to Seider.
He calls it depth.
“I haven’t seen this kind of depth since we came here in what, 1995?” Seider said the other day after West Virginia had added even more depth to that corps of running backs. “We had Amos Zereoue, Alvin Swoope, Curtis Keaton, Robert Walker, Jimmy Gary; all of them. That was a loaded room.”
In the fall, though, it is going to be extremely interesting to see how an inventive offensive mind like Holgorsen’s mixes and matches it all and to understand why he would bring Donte-Thomas in alongside Dreamius Smith when there were so many other needs.
“I learned a long time ago from some good guys who used to work here, you never turn down a great player when you’ve got the chance to get one,” Seider said. “And I thought he was a great player.
“You’re losing Dreamius in another year and you don’t know; guys get hurt. We’re in a conference where you’ve got to have four or five healthy bodies that can play. If you wait and try to hit those needs (just before they arise), you never know who you’re going to get. If you’ve got a chance to fill it, you’d better fill it now.”
And so that was the approach taken, and it should allow Holgorsen to feature a different kind of offense than he’s had in the past.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.