Being a pass-first team has been West Virginia’s reputation for years.
But in reality, that hasn’t necessarily been true. West Virginia has usually employed a healthy running game under Dana Holgorsen.
In 2017, the Mountaineers ran the ball on 48.9 percent of their snaps, ranking sixth among the 10 Big 12 schools.
And this season’s West Virginia team looks to have three capable backs. There are a pair of experienced options and a freshman who has a chance to make waves.
Here’s a look at West Virginia’s running back unit:
It finally looks like it’s Kennedy McKoy’s time to shine. The junior rushed for 596 yards and 7 touchdowns as a backup to Justin Crawford last season, after a surprisingly productive freshman season. With Crawford gone, McKoy emerges as the starter.
But make no mistake, this will not be McKoy’s show. Since taking over the West Virginia program, Dana Holgorsen has never relied on just one running back. He prefers to utilize a committee of up to three options.
McKoy is a versatile zone runner with some burst. And he took to the offense faster than almost any running back West Virginia coaches had seen.
McKoy may not have the pure breakaway threat Justin Crawford possessed, but he has been a productive chunk-yardage producer in his first two years. Despite not being the featured back in West Virginia’s offense, McKoy has more than 1,000 yards in his career.
West Virginia has also experimented with McKoy splitting out wide in the past. With quarterback Will Grier promising to focus more on efficiency and third-down conversions, it will not be a surprise to imagine McKoy sees more targets out of the backfield as well.
But can McKoy take that next step as a feature back? He’s shown he’s capable of being a productive option in a committee, but the players behind him are less proven this year. McKoy needs to show that he’s ready to not just be a guy, but be the guy.
Junior Martell Pettaway broke onto the scene under strange circumstances. As a true freshman in 2016, Pettaway was expected to redshirt. He suited up on Saturdays, just in case, but Holgorsen never had any intentions of playing him.
But as the season went on, injuries started to pile up, and Holgorsen got nervous. Finally, on Nov. 26, Holgorsen burned Pettaway’s redshirt and sent him out there at Iowa State — and the freshman ran for 181 yards on 30 carries.
To date, that one game represents almost half of Pettaway’s career rushing yards. Opportunities were scarce for Pettaway as West Virginia’s third-stringer in 2017, but he rushed for a 3.5-yard average on the touches he did get.
With the rise of Alec Sinkfield behind him, Pettaway may need to kick it into another gear to get touches again this fall.
Pettaway is a compact, hard-running back at 5-foot-9 and 208 pounds. He’s a bruiser who could find a niche getting tough inside yards.
But Sinkfield is the talent who really captures the imagination. Holgorsen redshirted Sinkfield last season, and unlike with Pettaway, he managed to make it stick. The product of American Heritage (Delray Beach, Fla.) High School has been one of West Virginia’s breakout stars during spring.
Sinkfield has the type of pure big-play ability that McKoy and Pettaway don’t possess. In high school, he was a weapon not just as a runner, but also as a receiver and return man. Sinkfield could easily make an impact as an out-of-the-backfield receiver for West Virginia.
According to offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, Sinkfield was good enough to play last year, but the logjam on the depth chart made it a wise decision to wait a year.
West Virginia now has two players with experience ahead of him, but don’t be surprised if Sinkfield is making the most plays for the Mountaineers in 2018.