MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Just imagine if Justin Crawford
can do in year two what Rasul Douglas managed to accomplish during his second season playing for the Mountaineers in 2016.
What will that mean for West Virginia’s offense?
What will that mean for Crawford?
If you recall, Douglas came to WVU from Nassau Community College in 2015 and was used sparingly in 11 games as a junior while he became more familiar with the Mountaineer way of doing things.
Then, with a spring and a full summer under his belt, Douglas blew up and turned into one of the top cover corners in the country. He earned second team All-America honors and parlayed the tremendous success he enjoyed during his senior season at WVU into a possible starting role with the Philadelphia Eagles this fall as a rookie.
Well, Crawford is traveling a similar path as Douglas. The 6-foot, 203-pound tailback signed out of Northwest Mississippi Community College in the winter of 2016 and arrived in the summertime before being thrown into the fire immediately as a first-year junior.
With minimal time to learn Dana Holgorsen’s system, Crawford still managed to rush for a 101 yards on 21 carries in his Mountaineer debut against Missouri.
Two games later, he ran for 104 yards and scored a touchdown in West Virginia’s big home victory over Kansas State; had 129 yards in a home win over Kansas and then produced monster performances against Oklahoma and Baylor, rushing for 331 and 209 yards respectively.
On the basis of those big games against Missouri, Kansas State, Kansas, Oklahoma and Baylor, Crawford led the Big 12 in rushing with 1,184 yards. His 7.3 yards-per-carry average was among the best in the country with 14 of his runs going for at least 20 yards, including four covering a distance of 40 yards or longer.
So, with all of this additional time now in the Mountaineer system, will that make a major difference with Crawford?
Justin believes so.
“I feel like I’ve progressed tremendously, not only with my playing ability but being able to recognize the defense. Just being able to have that extra spring that I didn’t have last year really helped me out a lot,” he said recently.
Crawford said he’s four pounds heavier than he was last year, and he hopes to play in the 203-to 205-pound range this season.
He is also taking much better care of his body this summer, eating the right things, getting the proper rest and making sure he is fully recovered before tackling his next grueling summer workout with Mike Joseph’s staff.
If there was one knock on Justin’s junior season in 2016, it was his durability, a subject he broached from time to time when he talked to media a couple of weeks ago at the Milan Puskar Center.
On several occasions, he referenced his overall health and ways that he can stay in the best shape possible to maximize his full potential on the football field. If you think about it, some nagging injuries did more to slow him down than anything opposing defenses did.
“I try to keep my body in tip-top condition, recover, stay hydrated, eat the right things, get enough sleep and things like that,” he said.
“When I was younger, I just liked to eat junk food and bad things that weren’t good for your body but when I got here and I met (sports nutritionist) Nettie (Puglisi Freshour). She talked to me and told me the things that I need to eat to help me make it through the day - just to keep my body from getting injured.”
What would having a completely healthy Justin Crawford
been able to accomplish with, say, another 50 or 100 carries when you consider his 7.3 rushing average?
Think of it this way. It took Steve Slaton 248 carries to rush for a school-record 1,744 yards in 2006 on the way to earning consensus All-America honors that season.
That’s 85 more touches than Crawford got in 2016.
Avon Cobourne ran the ball 335 times when he rushed for 1,765 yards in 2002, and Amos Zereoue had the ball under his arm 281 times when he tore up Big East defenses for 1,589 yards during his outstanding junior season in 1997.
Even Wendell Smallwood, in 2015, got the rock 75 more times than Crawford did in leading the Big 12 with 1,519 yards rushing.
It’s unlikely Crawford will carry the ball 250 or 300 times this season because West Virginia simply has too many other quality options at running back, but even getting the ball in his hands 200 times this year could mean additional opportunities for big plays.
Or, it could also come in the passing game where new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital has said he is continuing to explore different ways to get his best playmakers the football.
“Just doing what I can do,” Crawford said of the possibility of seeing more passes thrown his way out of the backfield.
This is another area where Crawford could really help West Virginia’s offense in 2017. Despite catching just 14 passes for 68 yards last season, Crawford has demonstrated during practices and scrimmages the ball skills necessary to become a bigger factor in the passing game.
If you recall, that was an area where Slaton and Smallwood really shined for the Mountaineers.
Smallwood caught 57 passes for 486 yards during his final two seasons at WVU, while Slaton grabbed 43 aerials for 710 yards and three touchdowns during his sophomore and junior campaigns in 2006-07.
It’s very realistic to see Crawford with 20 to 30 receptions this season coming out of the backfield, where his speed and shifty moves out in the open could put a lot of pressure on defenses.
That could get him closer to that 250- to 300-touch number that could mean the difference between a 10-yard play for a first down, or a 75-yard play for a touchdown.
These are the things West Virginia’s offensive coaches are likely contemplating as they get ready for preseason training camp, which opens on Monday, July 31.
And a healthy, more experienced Justin Crawford
with the football in his hands more frequently could mean big things for the Mountaineers in 2017, and perhaps big things for Crawford’s pro football aspirations, just as another year playing for West Virginia last season helped Rasul Douglas’ career.