Justin Crawford arrived just before fall camp at West Virginia a year ago without the benefit of the program’s offseason conditioning.
The junior college transfer compiled 1,184 rushing yards despite sitting out most of four games with ankle and knee injuries.
With Crawford able to get in six months of weightlifting and workouts in 2017, coach Dana Holgorsen is downright giddy about the prospects for the Big 12’s top returning rusher.
“I think the offseason was really good for him. He’s never had one,” Holgorsen said. “You may not see it in game one or game two, but hopefully you’ll see it in game five or game six. He’ll be able to be ‘that guy’ the whole year.”
Depth isn’t a concern at running back for No. 22 West Virginia, which might use six of them when the Mountaineers face No. 21 Virginia Tech on Sunday at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. Besides Crawford, two others have surpassed 100 rushing yards in a game before.
Despite the arrival of transfer quarterback Will Grier from Florida, the Mountaineers’ offense is expected to revolve around Crawford, a senior who saw limited action against Texas Tech and TCU with a sprained ankle, had just three carries at Texas and banged up a knee at Iowa State.
The offseason allowed Crawford to get a better understanding of the game by watching countless videos of opposing defenses.
“It just allows me to go out there and play and be quick on my feet,” Crawford said. “I just feel stronger and more able to recognize the defense. Just make it through the whole season — that’s my No. 1 goal.”
What Holgorsen wants more out of Crawford is scoring touchdowns. West Virginia running backs had just 10 TDs last season, including four from Crawford.
“Trust me, that’s been discussed,” Holgorsen said. “What good is getting 2-300 yards if you can’t get in the end zone, right? I’d like for him to bust a few of those and finish them off. I think there’s a conditioning aspect to that, a strength aspect to that. I’m hopeful that the offseason that he went through is going to be able to help him finish some of those runs.”
Holgorsen came to West Virginia in 2011 with a reputation of cultivating prolific passers but found that quick-strike touchdown drives meant his defense would spend more time on the field and get tired. Over the past few seasons the running game has become a more significant part of the offense to gobble up clock time.
Wendell Smallwood’s 1,519 yards in 2015 are fourth all-time in school history. Last season West Virginia’s 2,969 rushing yards represented 47 percent of the offensive production.
West Virginia has a chance to do even more this season. For the first time, Holgorsen won’t be calling offensive plays — that responsibility goes to first-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
“Everybody knows we’re going to try to run the ball,” Holgorsen said.
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster points out that West Virginia generally uses only one running back at a time.
“So I’m sure they’re going to get touches and probably go with the guy that’s hot if one gets that way,” he said. “They’re going to take what you give them and try to, you know, create big plays.”
Sophomore Kennedy McCoy started twice last year and had a season-high 127 rushing yards against Kansas. Sophomore Martell Pettaway ran for 181 yards in his debut against Iowa State after being forced into action due to injuries.
Behind Pettaway, the depth chart lists freshman Tevin Bush and Alec Sinkfield. Holgorsen also plans to give the ball to fullback Elijah Wellman.
“There’s a lot of us and we’re all looking to help the team,” McKoy said. “Whichever number coach calls out, we’re all rooting for each other. We all just come in here and push each other, make each other better.”