MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There’s little question that running back is the position giving Neal Brown the most comfort heading into his first season as West Virginia’s coach.
“Maybe our most talented position is at running back,” Brown said during spring practice.
Seniors Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway both have surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for their careers, though they have combined for only 15 starts.
McKoy ran for 5.5 yards per carry in 2018, while Pettaway averaged 6.4. With Will Grier’s passing attack taking the focus, they had the fewest touches of any West Virginia 1-2 running back tandem since 2011.
In order to improve those numbers this season, they’ll need help up front from the a partially rebuilt offensive line — but that’s another subject for another story, as we examine each position group separately.
Here’s a look at West Virginia’s projected depth chart at running back this fall.
McKoy and Pettaway are options 1A and 1B, but McKoy’s ability as a pass-catcher may result in him seeing the field on more overall snaps. McKoy had 17 catches for 224 yards last year, and his 36 career receptions for 360 yards technically make him the most experienced pass-catcher on the roster.
Sophomore Alec Sinkfield indicated that the backs will definitely be involved in the passing game, which will certainly benefit himself and McKoy.
“This offense allows us to show our route-running ability, our hands out of the backfield,” Sinkfield said.
As measured by yards per carry, Pettaway had the edge last season, averaging 6.4 ypc to McKoy’s 5.5. That average was good enough to rate fourth in the Big 12 last season.
Pettaway’s physical style makes him a reliable choice when the Mountaineers need to move the chains or push the ball across the goal line. Brown specifically cited his ability in short yardage and goal-line situations this spring.
Even as a freshman, the 5-foot-11, 211-pound Brown played above his size and showed he may be West Virginia’s most punishing running back. Brown embraces contact — a style that can result in shorter gains, but pays off against fatigued defenses in the fourth quarter.
Brown was the back who stuck out the most to Neal Brown in the spring game. He had a 13-yard gain that was the longest from scrimmage.
“He has been really consistent,” Neal Brown said. “And when I use that word consistent, I think that is one of the best ways I can describe someone on our football team.”
Sinkfield is the back whose potential remains the most untapped as a Mountaineer. He suffered a high ankle sprain against Youngstown State and missed more than a month. Even after he returned against Baylor, Sinkfield did not feel up to full speed.
This spring, he did. As a result, the coaching staff isn’t just using him as a running back. Sinkfield also moves into motion as a slot receiver, and will be a candidate to return kicks and punts.
“I’m definitely comfortable with that. Before I played running back, I played receiver three years in high school,” Sinkfield said. “I think running back is probably my second position and receiver is my first.”
With so much talent returning, it will be a tall task for Mathis to make his way onto the field as a freshman, particularly since his first college practice won’t be until August. But the Georgia native has been on Neal Brown’s radar for a long enough time that he seems certain to have some future role in West Virginia’s offense.
Brown fervently recruited Mathis when he was at Troy, though he knew there was little chance he would land the running back in the Sun Belt.
“At Troy, Tony was our No. 1 guy at running back forever,” Brown said. “He had a whole lot of offers, so we didn’t have success getting him to Troy. But I loved the way he ran. We had a relationship and we knew his game.”
Each week this offseason, we’ll look at the depth chart at each position for West Virginia. If you missed any, you can catch up here: