The Times West Virginian

Sports

July 16, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Smallwood puts future in jeopardy

MORGANTOWN — The last thing West Virginia’s struggling football program needed as twilight was setting on Bastille Day in Morgantown was to have one of its own whisked off to the North Central Regional Jail on a fugitive warrant from another state, especially a player who had figured to play a key role in the resurrection of a program gone bad.

Wendell Smallwood seemed to be a nice enough sort, young last year as freshmen tend to be, but not the kind of kid you’d expect to find involved – even on the periphery as this seems to be – in a murder case.

He is a talented, versatile running back/slot receiver, a mini-Charles Sims who spent last year shadowing the all-Big 12 running back while being anointed his replacement for this season.

Through the spring and summer Coach Dana Holgorsen heaped nothing but praise upon Smallwood, as did his position coach JaJuan Seider.

In fact, Holgorsen tied his star to Smallwood’s wagon almost when he first caught glimpse of him in spring, 2013.

"Wendell Smallwood's exceeded all of my expectations as a high school guy coming straight out of high school," Holgorsen said at the end of that first spring practice.

Smallwood did nothing during the season to lower Holgorsen’s expectations.

He finished the year with 221 rushing yards and a touchdown, added 11 receptions for 132 yards and was the prime kickoff returner for the Mountaineers, averaging 18 yards while bring 30.

“Wendell, the way he came on toward the end of the season, was probably our most-improved player throughout the year,” Seider said.

This spring it wasn’t much different as Holgorsen declared Smallwood “our second best receiver right now” even though he was a running back, prompting visions of Smallwood making the same impact Sims did a year ago when he led the team in rushing and receiving.

“He’s versatile,” WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “We’re finding a lot of ways to get him the ball. That kid is skilled, he really is, but he’s got the mental capacity to handle a lot of different things. We’re trying to push the limits to what we can do with that kid. We’re just trying to see what he can do by lining him up anywhere.”

The Mountaineer post-spring depth chart had Smallwood listed at No 2 among the running backs, with big back Dreamius Smith ahead of him.

But the WVU backfield situation was fluid.

It is deep and versatile, with not only Smith and Smallwood, but Rushel Schell, a transfer from Pitt who was one of the most highly recruited players in

the nation three years back, and Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, each the leading rusher for WVU the two years before Sims.

But with it all, Smallwood seemed to hold the key to unlocking the offense if quarterback Clint Trickett is fully recovered.

He was the guy the defense was going to have identify on each play, spot where he was playing in the formation … would he take a handoff or a swing pass, possibly even the little touch pass that Tavon Austin had made famous.

But who knew that far more sinister things were hiding off in the shadows for Smallwood.

On April 14, 2012, in the 2700 block of W. Fourth Street in Wilmington, Del., Manuel Oliveras, 51 was fatally shot at about 9 p.m. in the front courtyard of a row home.

Nine months later the Wilmington police force arrested Zakee Lloyd, then 19, and charged him with first-degree murder.

It appears Smallwood is a friend of Lloyd’s.

That, of course, is not a crime. What is what police say happened next.

While not involved in the murder, Smallwood had a felony warrant sworn about against him in Delaware for intimidation of a witness.

According to the Wilmington News-Journal, police Cpl. Mark Ivey said that in March and May of last year, Smallwood "called to try to get a witness to come and make a false statement to police recanting previous statements" that implicated Lloyd.

This is a serious charge, one that could carry 25 years in prison under a new, tougher witness intimidation law that was adopted this past May in Delaware.

Obviously, this turn events blindsided everyone. As is team policy, Holgorsen’s was non-commital, saying “We are looking into the matter and will take action at the appropriate time.”

Meanwhile, this doesn’t look like something that will be worked through quickly.

Most important, of course, is Smallwood’s future, which now is very much at stake, not in a football sense but in full life sense.

Perhaps he can work his way through it, even prove he is innocent of the charge, but the situation certainly has cast a shadow over his football season, which seems rather minor at the moment, and surely has the West Virginia coaching staff looking at alternate plans.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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