By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A month ago to the day, as this is written, West Virginia opened spring football practice with almost too many unknowns to imagine, yet there was one area where head coach Dana Holgorsen felt his team had a proven strength — running back.
And, among the running backs, perhaps the one he felt most certain of was the most unlikely one in a bunch including returners Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison and newcomers Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood.
But Holgorsen went a step further in noting the running back strength, singling out in-state produce Cody Clay as someone who will “line up back there and do some good things.”
Nothing has changed that opinion and, in fact, Cody Clay has, if anything, further entrenched himself in the picture even though he is anything but what one would expect out of a running back.
Certainly this former George Washington player who was projected to be a center when recruited — more on that later — has won over the new running back coach JuJuan Seider during the first month of drills.
You ask him who among the running backs has impressed him, and while all of them have, the answer you get is not the one you expect.
“I keep going back to Cody Clay,” Seider said. “He’s doing everything we have in the backfield, on the line, catching the ball.”
He’s used as a blocking back, as a slot receiver, mostly to clear the way for others, and he does it better than anyone else.
“To me, if you don’t block, you’re not playing,” Seider said. “That quarterback position is too important, especially in this offense.”
And right now Cody Clay is his prime protector, much as the Secret Service agent is in charge of the safety of the president of the United States.
“I love to block,” Clay admitted. “I’d rather block than even catch the ball.”
It is wrong, however, to believe that Clay will simply serve as a blocker ... sort of a sixth offensive lineman. He can catch the ball and run it, too.
“I trust him enough to have no problem putting the ball in his hands,” Seider said.
Why not? Being with the ball in his hands was how WVU and Seider, then at Marshall, envisioned him when they were recruiting him a couple years back ... only it wasn’t running with the ball or catching it.
It was snapping the ball. They asked him to move to center.
“Everyone presumed he was going to grow into an offensive lineman,” Seider said.
Seider had seen players like Clay grow into linemen, noting that John Thornton had come to WVU as a tight end and became an NFL defensive lineman and he envisioned the same in Clay.
Clay was asked to gain 30 pounds while becoming the scout team player of the year in 2011.
“I ate a lot, but I don’t know what happened,” Clay said. “I just couldn’t gain the weight I needed to. I thought it would be easy, but I tried.”
While everyone on earth seems to be fighting to keep weight off and losing the battle, Clay fought to put it on and lost.
“We thought he would be a center,” Seider admitted. “He was big, he ran well, caught the ball well. It’s just the style of offense where you fit them. It’s a testament to him; he lived right, he did the right things on and off the field to develop into the type of player he is.”
And that type of player is the kind that lays it all out there on every play, and a coach can’t get enough of them.
“I’m hoping Elijah Wellman (a recruit out of Spring Valley) is the same type kid,” Seider said. “Those kids build a program. They are the same type of kid — blue collar and will do anything you want them to do and will sacrifice so much to be part of this program. You need those kids in your program.”
All one needs do is think back to what Wes Ours did for the Mountaineers a decade or so ago as fullback in a lineman’s body to understand the importance of such a player.
That is how they saw Clay.
“We felt he’d make the running back room better because those guys see him competing and laying it on the line every day,” Seider said. “It’s easy when I can say, ‘Hey, look what Cody’s doing. You guys need to do the same things. You don’t understand how privileged you are to have someone like Cody who lays it on the line for you like that.’
“Guys buying in, believing in him, having his back, making him want to work hard is good for everyone in the room.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.