MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - A lot can happen in 577 days in the wide, wonderful world of West Virginia football.
Think back that many days ago to Jan. 7, 2016, when junior running back Wendell Smallwood shocked everybody by announcing his intention to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.
Smallwood’s sudden departure put West Virginia in a major bind. The Mountaineers needed an older, more experienced runner capable of coming in and playing immediately in 2016.
The guy they ended up getting a month later on signing day was junior college All-American Justin Crawford
In the meantime, WVU had commitments from two solid high school running backs - Martell Pettaway
, a Detroit resident who publically committed to the Mountaineers on June 23, 2015, followed by Lexington, North Carolina’s Kennedy McKoy
, who made his commitment known a few weeks later on July 4, 2015.
Back then, who would have ever known that West Virginia was assembling one of the deeper and more versatile backfields in college football today?
Of course, Crawford made an immediate splash by rushing for 101 yards in his WVU debut against Missouri, and followed that up with monster rushing performances against Oklahoma (331 yards) and Baylor (209 yards) on the way to ranking fourth in the Big 12 in rushing.
Pettaway’s college debut at Iowa State was even more impressive than Crawford’s, the true freshman slashing his way to 181 yards and a touchdown in helping West Virginia to an important late-season road victory against the Cyclones.
And then there is McKoy, the ball-toting/pass-catching extraordinaire who ran for a season-high 127 yards against Kansas, scored a pair of rushing touchdowns in his first college start at Texas and demonstrated enough versatility and ball catching skills to merit some serious consideration as a slot receiver in certain situations.
Offensive coordinators are limited by what their players can do. But when they’ve got players such as Kennedy McKoy
capable of handling a lot of different responsibilities, that creates so many more possibilities for coordinators to explore, including using multiple running backs in the game at the same time.
“It’s huge,” WVU offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said last week. “It opens up a lot of things and that’s kind of where the game is going - those running backs that can be split out all over the field.”
Crawford has some of those of those ball skills as a receiver coming out of the backfield, but not really since Smallwood has West Virginia had a runner who could also threaten the defense as a pass catcher.
That is until McKoy showed up on campus.
“With Kennedy, he’s one of our top receivers, as well as being one of our top running backs so it’s been pretty fun to watch that package evolve,” Spavital said.
“Any way coach wants to get me the ball, I’m fine with that,” McKoy said following Friday’s practice.
Catching the ball out of the backfield is almost second nature to McKoy, a former three-star recruit from North Davidson High who entertained offers from North Carolina, NC State, Virginia and Louisville before choosing the Mountaineers.
“I guess it’s something I’ve always had, but it’s something I continue to work on and get better at to better myself all the time,” McKoy said.
Spavital said he’s always reluctant to put more on a younger player’s plate than what he can comfortably handle because running backs have a lot of responsibilities beyond just running the ball.
There are pass protections and route choices that running backs must do correctly in order for things to go smoothly. When they’re not done right, sometimes it can result in bad things happening and sometimes some very bad things.
Do you remember the Missouri game near the end of the first half when a busted assignment nearly got quarterback Skyler Howard killed?
McKoy was the guilty party.
“That was one opportunity I didn’t take full advantage of but I learned from it and I never messed up on that play again,” he said. “I knew as soon as the play was over I did something wrong, but I learned from it.”
In fact, he learned his lessons so well that he earned his first collegiate start at Texas with Crawford and senior Rushel Shell III on the shelf nursing injuries. McKoy’s first-quarter touchdown run gave the Mountaineers a 10-3 lead, and later in the game, his short TD burst late in the third quarter helped give WVU enough room to hold on for a key, 24-20 victory.
McKoy’s strong performance in front of 96,367 fired-up fans at Darrell K Royal Texas Memorial Stadium was the big boost that he needed.
That was the game when he really felt like he grew up as a college football player.
“It was my first start,” McKoy recalled. “Being in front of a lot of fans like that at Texas was indescribable and I just went out there and did what they told me to do.”
By last spring, McKoy said things really began slowing down for him.
“I can make my reads and get through my reads quicker now, whether it’s a pass protection where I can leak out into the flat, a pass protection where I have to stay in and block or we’re running the inside zone and I see the nose go away so I cut it … so yeah,” he said.
The addition last spring of 5-foot-6-inch, 174-pound sparkplug Tevin Bush
from New Orleans has given West Virginia yet another weapon in its backfield arsenal.
All four guys possess different skill sets that could make things extremely difficult for defenses.
McKoy believes there are enough pages in Spavital’s playbook to utilize all of the weapons he has in the Mountaineer backfield this year.
“We can definitely use it to our advantage, having four or five backs that can just come in the game,” McKoy said. “We all have different skill sets and you don’t know what’s coming at you, whether somebody is going to run you over, somebody is going to juke you out, run around you … you just never know.”
One thing we are fairly certain of, though, is that Crawford will probably be the first running back out on the field when West Virginia opens its season against longtime rival Virginia Tech.
The question is could there be another running back out there with him?
“We’re working on that,” McKoy said. “Coach (Tony) Dews is teaching us all of the positions in the backfield, whether we’re lining up offset to the quarterback, behind the quarterback, just different ways to get on the field.”
And if McKoy is not out there right away, that’s not a big deal to him either.
“I’m all for the team; I don’t really care. Whoever scores, I’m going to be jumping up and down right with them,” he said. “I just take advantage of all the opportunities that I get. As soon as I step on the field I’m giving 100 percent effort and I’m trying to score every play.”
“I think the running backs in general are a unique group because I think they all bring something to the table,” Spavital added. “It’s going to be pretty fun to see how we get them all implemented into the game plan.”
Plenty of fun.
Indeed, a lot that can happen in a matter of 577 days.