WVU’s Holgorsen: Smallwood Most Versatile, Shell Most Natural Tailback

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It has only been two weeks, but Dana Holgorsen already has a solid understanding of which running backs he will be relying on the most when the season arrives on August 30 in Atlanta, Ga.

Although the official running back depth chart has not been released, he recently displayed his excitement for two guys that seem to be a step ahead of the rest.

“Rushel Shell looks great,” Holgorsen said with elation. “He had two or three runs that you go, ‘well yeah, I can see why the hype was there.' He's getting much more comfortable. His ball security is better. He's running people over. He looks good.

Wendell [Smallwood] is the most versatile guy that we've got,” he added. “That continues – he's broke some runs and he's got some good short yardage stuff. His receiving skills have improved. He looks good.”

Then again, choosing the best option is not the hardest part. According to Holgorsen, it's the final step prior to the end result that seems to the most difficult.

“It typically works itself out, out there,” he said. “We've got to have information. We've got to see good plays and bad plays – who's picking it up and who's not picking it up. But that's the beauty of camp. You're able to play a lot of ball and get a lot of reps, and spend a lot of time with them. We're not restricted on any of it. So it tends to work itself out. Calling them in and telling them is a different story. Developing is not hard, but telling them the good news and the bad news sometimes is.”

Holgorsen clearly understands he has a big decision to make regarding his tailback situation. The depth is one thing, but whittling it down to the top two or three guys will be the toughest part.

Shell, a 6-foot, 210-pound redshirt sophomore transfer from the University of Pittsburgh, was believed to be the X-factor of the rotation heading into camp. Now as the Mountaineers approach the final week of preseason practice, the Western Pennsylvania product has created a degree of separation amongst the rest.

WVU running backs coach JaJuan Seider knew what he had in Shell all along.

“Well I think Rushel [Shell] is naturally built that way. Rushel is built with a chip on his shoulder,” Seider said. “The biggest thing with Rushel is he's been trying to just get comfortable with the offense, and he has. People are going to say a lot about Rushel Shell. I'll just put it that way. The kid is talented. I mean, he's the most natural kid in that room when it comes to the running back position.”

“He may have the best ball skills on the team,” Holgorsen said with emphasis, referring to Shell's level of talent. “I found that out recently. He has tremendous hands. He runs angry. But he can surprise you in the open field. So I've been very pleased with what I've seen out of him.”

In contrast, Wendell Smallwood, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound sophomore from Wilmington, Delaware, is quite different from Shell. Smallwood is a bouncy tailback, capable to breaking a long run by starting out east and west, then making a quick cut to go north and south. Moreover, he's a running back who can catch a screen pass and turn it up field in an instant.

Among all the comparisons Smallwood has compiled, there was one that stood out during Holgorsen's second press conference during fall camp.

Charles Sims.

“Very much so – they're very, very similar,” Holgorsen said emphatically. “We could kind of tell that last year a little bit. I made reference to this – Charles [Sims] is going to be a great pro. The reason he was the second back taken is because he was versatile. They're wanting to do that in the NFL as well, being able to have guys who can run between the tackles but also be a receiver. He left his mark here with the younger guys. Wendell followed him and learned from him, and they do possess the same skill set. So hopefully we have the same production.

I think we can replace Charles with a combination of Wendell [Smallwood], Rushel Shell, [Andrew] Buie, [Dustin] Garrison and Dreamius [Smith], and all of that,” he added. ”I think we'll be better at back because we have more bodies.”

“The game has completely slowed down for him,” Seider said, referring to Smallwood's progression. “Whether he's at receiver or at running back – he's a big play waiting to happen. I mean, he's a kid who can strike the band up in a heartbeat. He's everything – just right now, having Charles [Sims] for a year, I think he's everything we wanted Charles to be last year. The good thing is that he doesn't have to do it by himself because we have so much depth in that room. Last year, at some point of the season, we had to have Charles do it all. Now, hell, I'll trust Wendell in any situation. If it's third and one, first and 10, second and six – I can either throw it to him or run it with him. I want the ball in his hands. That's how highly I think of the kid and his maturity level going forward.”

So there it is – Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood seem to be the favorites as a one-two punch for the WVU running back rotation. But the depth chart is far from being a finished product.

When you add in Dreamius Smith, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie – there's still time for the other three to make a late push. Additionally, Holgorsen's offensive track record has always been known for being creative; getting everyone involved one way or another.

But the silver lining in having a competition at a specific position is the luxury of being able to redshirt other players. During Monday's press conference, Holgorsen outlined the players he plans on redshirting, including freshman running back Dontae Thomas-Williams, a four-star recruit from Durham, North Carolina.

“At this point, yes, just because of how many guys we've got,” Holgorsen responded when asked about the possibility of Thomas-Williams redshirting in 2014. “He's still getting reps. He got a ton of reps out there this morning. We will continue to evaluate that. But what's different than in years past is – physically he could be fine; he could do it. It's just that you don't want to use up that year if he's not ever going to play. The situation we've been in, in the past is you've had to kind of keep those guys ready to go and if you needed to use them then you would use them. But I don't think we're going to be in that spot.”

The biggest takeaway from Holgorsen's comments on Monday is that frontrunners have emerged in the running back competition. Shell entered the program with a lot of hype, while Smallwood got an uncanny amount of playing time during his freshman season. The writing may have already been on the wall, but both players still had to go out and prove it.

There's no discounting the impact that Smith, Garrison and Buie can make, but the bottom line is that Shell and Smallwood have elevated their play to a different level.

As any coach will tell you, possessing too much talent is a good problem to have, resulting in a battle-proof backfield, primed and ready to take care of business on Saturdays. 

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