Previewing West Virginia’s Running Back Room

We continue our Mountaineer Spring preview series by previewing West Virginia's running back room heading into the Spring game.

Previewing West Virginia’s Running Back Room

We started off our Spring coverage of the West Virginia Mountaineers with a general overview. Then, we moved on to the quarterbacks. Now, we shift our attention to the backfield. Here, we are previewing West Virginia’s running back room for the Spring.

The Overview

Last season we did not mince words when we said the Mountaineers had to improve its run game. Simply, 2019 featured a historically-poor run game from West Virginia. It averaged just over two-and-a-half yards per carry that year and managed just 73 yards per game. Head Coach Neal Brown, however, had a goal. He wanted the Mountaineers to establish a blue-collar offense focused heavily on the run game.

We predicted last season that West Virginia would substantially improve this aspect of its offense. It did. Indeed, the Mountaineers increased their average to nearly four yards per attempt and ripped off 135 yards per game. This coming season, however, they look to improve even more. Brown specifically called for it, in fact. We will, of course, see how things progress this Spring and in the first days of Fall camp before locking ourselves into a prediction, but we anticipate that improvement to occur.

The Lead Back

Before last season, the coaching staff identified focus areas for lead-back Leddie Brown. They called on him to improve his explosiveness and his drive through contact. Brown certainly listened. Indeed, well over half of his yards came after contact, as he bruised his way to over 1,000 yards this past season. More impressive still, despite running into early contact, Brown piled up over five yards per carry. He added nine touchdowns.

Each of the numbers represented a vast improvement by Brown over his 2019 campaign. In 2019, Brown managed under three-and-a-half yards per carry, 367 total yards, and a single touchdown. Lest it be forgotten, Brown earned several offers out of high school. After all, his offer list included Alabama, Florida, Tennessee. His four-star ranking (per Rivals) out of high school showed his potential for growth. In 2019, however, Brown found few openings to burst through, and his numbers suffered.

Now that he improved his awareness and explosiveness, we expect Brown to work on the finer points of his game next season. Running behind an improved offensive line (which we have covered in part here but will preview for Spring soon), Brown should increase his efficiency even further.

Previewing West Virginia’s Running Back Room: The Supporting Cast

Last season, West Virginia still had trouble finding consistent production behind Brown. Despite missing several quarters of action this year due to injury, Brown still averaged 20 carries per game. In the ideal world, Brown would have run the ball fewer times per game, and West Virginia would have seen production improve behind him.

That was not to be. Alec Sinkfield, who has since transferred, racked up 78 carries, but his big-play potential never emerged. Sinkfield also seemed the ideal change-of-pace back. He was not asked to carry the load, but he was expected to offer a consistent play-making threat. To be fair, Sinkfield did not play poorly. He still averaged four yards per carry. Consistency in production, however, never took shape. Moreover, during the times he was asked to shoulder more of the load, opposing defenses found room to bottle him up.

Enter Tony Mathis and A’varius Sparrow. Mathis enters his third year with the program, but, with the free year due to COVID, he is only a sophomore in terms of eligibility. To date, Mathis tallied 22 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown in his college career. Sparrow is a relative newcomer to football. He flashed a ton of potential in his senior season in high school, but his talent remains raw. Coach Brown looks for both Mathis and Sparrow to take the next step. In order for the run game to improve, the Mountaineers will surely count on production from both. The pair will have every opportunity to prove themselves over the Spring.

The Newcomers

If Sparrow and Mathis prove unready or unwilling to shoulder the support roles they will be asked to fill, the Mountaineers have a duo of newcomers in the fray. Both Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson join the running back room as four-star signees. This is the first time the Mountaineers welcome two four-star running backs in the same class, and, once they enroll, it will be the first time West Virginia has had three four-star running backs on the roster at the same time.

That said, neither running back has enrolled early. As a result, neither will benefit from the reps during Spring camp. This means, of course, that Mathis and Sparrow will earn plenty of time, and both will feature heavily during the Spring game. That said, we do look forward to the arrival of Johnson and Anderson. The added competition will help sharpen every back in the room, and the promise of competition to arrive soon will no doubt add fuel for Mathis and Sparrow to make the most of their opportunities this Spring.

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