No debate on running backs: WVU needs both Shell, Crawford


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Rushel Shell’s third-quarter fumble at Kansas State’s 2-yard line became his final carry of the day. It also heightened calls for Justin Crawford to become West Virginia’s starting running back.

That’s essentially a pointless argument.

Shell and Crawford form a symbiotic platoon, and who takes the field on the opening series isn’t so consequential as who factors into the offense during crucial situations.

Through four games, Crawford shows better numbers. He’s fifth in the Big 12 at 82.8 rushing yards per game and 5.5 per carry, compared to Shell’s 61 per game and 4.8 per attempt.

Crawford is the twitchier runner, presumably possessing more breakaway potential, though being the bigger home-run threat doesn’t the decisive factor.

Head coach Dana Holgorsen flatly proclaimed this week that Shell “is our starting back” despite Crawford having nine more carries this season.

Make no mistake, there’s a symbolism attached to making the starting 11, and Shell has evolved into a team pillar over four seasons at West Virginia. Though Crawford has been a coach’s dream since arriving from junior college this summer, Shell simply has more time invested with this program’s upperclassmen.

“Why Russ goes out there is because he’s that valuable to our team,” Holgorsen said. “He’s been great leadership wise. He’s practiced hard. He has a toughness to him that needs to exist on offense.”

Linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton, a redshirt junior who signed with West Virginia the same year Shell transferred from Pitt, understands the depth-chart pecking order — and how the running backs co-exist.

“Russ is a lot more vocal. He’ll get in your face and let you know, and he wants you to get in his face when he’s not doing so well. With his leadership ability, he can get those guys fired up. The O-line responds very well to him.

“Crawford gets in and does exactly what he needs to do and helps us. He doesn’t care if he’s first-string or second-string. He’s not here for any of that — he’s just here to help the team win.”

With uptempo Big 12 games almost certain to mean 90-plus snaps, the offense requires the Shell-Crawford combo to flourish (along with more augmentation from third-stringer Kennedy McKoy, who has just seven touches). The fact Crawford has 60 carries to Shell’s 51 so far isn’t in itself an indicator of the offensive staff choosing favorites.

The distribution of carries can become skewed game to game because of the play-calling flexibility afforded Skyler Howard at the line. When the quarterback spots vulnerabilities in coverage, he may spend an entire series choosing pass plays over run options.

West Virginia also has yet to feature its two-back package using Shell and Crawford simultaneously. Doing so against Texas Tech could be enticing after the Mountaineers produced two 100-yard rushers in each of the past two meetings.

Said Holgorsen: “Hell, they may both start.”

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