MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It seems too early for a player’s season to be at a crossroads, yet these intersections happen where they happen. Just like transfers arrive at random intervals, creating ripples all along the roster.
This particular crossroads now faces Dreamius Smith, who barely registered a ripple in the season opener. He’s the guy who figured to be prominent in West Virginia’s ensemble of running backs. The guy who arrived in Morgantown last season as one of the land’s top-rated junior college recruits. The guy who made only three carries against Alabama.
“I think right now Dreamius is soul-searching,” said running backs coach JaJuan Seider. “Now, for the first time, I think he knows he dug himself a hole.”
This week’s latest recipient of Seider’s straight talk, Smith heard the evaluation behind his limited playing time: Rushel Shell churns harder and Wendell Smallwood has only gotten better since the end of last season when he was pushing Smith to be West Virginia’s No. 2 back.
“Rushel and Wendell, right now those are the two starters. Those are the guys,” Seider said. “If you can’t see that, you’re blind.”
Seider set the scene for Smith during the summer, letting him know it would be difficult to supplant the versatile Smallwood, who can shift seamlessly to inside receiver. And with regard to the Pitt transfer Shell, came a sterner warning:
“I told Dreamius if Rushel ever gets comfortable, you’re going to be trouble,” Seider said. “And Rushel did get comfortable, while Dreamius kind of coasted. I don’t know if he was trying to stay healthy during fall camp, but he never really turned it on.”
Shell turned it on early against Alabama, running mean, dragging tacklers and prompting Nick Saban to remark: “That guy is a good runner, and you’re going to know it before the end of this year is over.”
Smallwood caught six passes for 73 yards and came within a trip-tackle of taking one 95 yards. Smith was targeted once in the flat and let the pass slide through his hands.
“You make that catch in the flat—we’ve got a first down and, guess what, you’re still playing,” Seider said.
What puzzles Seider most is how Smith’s effectiveness tends to surge and wain. West Virginia had no more-thrilling individual effort in 2013 than the 75-yard run Smith reeled off at Oklahoma. Likewise, his two scores at Texas Tech showcased a back who looked NFL-ready.
“I told him I need you to be the Oklahoma back and the Texas Tech back, because if you do that, you’re going to play,” Seider said. “But if you’re going to play like you did at Kansas State, and not be sure of yourself or worry about not being the guy …”
Even as Smith has slipped to at least No. 3 on the depth chart, he remains a potentially valuable insurance policy should Shell and Smallwood be injured. After all, few running backs make it through a season without missing games, and even fewer avoid the sprains and stingers that can sideline them for several offensive series.
“We may not need you all the time, but we’re going to need you,” said Seider, who harps on Smith to run with more physicality. “Sometimes you’re going to be able to dance, but sometimes I need you to be 225 pounds, stick your foot in the ground and run somebody over.”
That’s what Shell has shown, and the coach suggests Smith mimic that style from the guy playing in front of him.
“Rushel has got that switch, where he thinks he’s the baddest person on the field, and a lot of times he’s right,” Seider said. “You’ve got to be able to take yourself to a zone. You’ve got to have a mentality where you’ve got to be tough. You can’t always be likable. When Dreamius plays pissed off, he plays pretty good, like how he ran the ball against Texas Tech.”
An FCS opponent such as Towson should afford Smith more touches, and a chance to turn on the bad-ass persona Seider is trying to coax.
“You can’t sit there and say, ‘Ah, coach is jerking me’ or ‘I’m the best back’ because the best guy is playing,” Seider said. “My job is to continue to motivate Dreamius and continue to coach him. He’s a big part of what we want to do going forward, and I’m going to need him. Now he needs to find himself.”