WVU running backs must be versatile
MORGANTOWN - In a perfect world, Robert Gillespie will reach a point as West Virginia's running backs coach where he's working with his eyes closed.
This is not to say it'll ever be that simple, but he strives to have a blind trust in his players, like the kind he enjoyed last season at Oklahoma State.
"I had an All-American guy I was comfortable pulling off the field," Gillespie said. "It's third-and-goal at Texas last year and Kendall Hunter is standing next to me and we've got a redshirt freshman in the game. We hand it off to him and he scores."
Hunter was an All-American in 2008 and again in 2010 and the Mountaineers, as they are currently composed, have no one like that. That's fine for Gillespie, who sees a group of small and big backs and even former fullbacks who give him options so that they can grow to be similar to one another.
There might not be a Hunter, or even a Noel Devine, who WVU must immediately replace, but he has guys who will get his message.
"We want to play fast and not slow down and change a whole set," he said. "It may be third-and-1 and we might say, 'Hey, hurry up, let's go high tempo before the defense gets set,' and you've got to get in there and hit it.'
Kendall Hunter last year was 5-foot-8, 190 pounds and in spots like that he was the short-yardage back.
"There are times when we know who we are. We get to the goal line and we want to go big, we'll do that. But as a whole, I want guys who understand that when we call a short-yardage play, I want to be able to put my hand over my eyes and let that one guy say, 'Let's go get it.'"
WVU wants to go. Doesn't matter who is on the field. That player can and will stay on the field. The same back the Mountaineers use to run a draw on second-and-20 would be the same to get the ball on third-and-inches.
It might be a little guy like 5-6, 185-pound Daquan Hargrett, who is better served for the draw than the dive, but it might also be 6-foot, 225-pound Ryan Clarke, who handles the blast better than the dash.
"That's what I want these guys to understand," said Gillespie, a former running back at the University of Florida and the Washington Redskins who worked at South Carolina before Oklahoma State. "If they work hard and practice the right way, I don't care who is in the game. We've got to get to the point where all our guys are comfortable playing all the plays."
WVU has 10 running backs on the roster and no longer makes the distinction between running backs and fullbacks like Clarke, Matt Lindamood and Ricky Kovatch. There's been little difference on the field, either, as everyone runs and catches the ball and blocks to get better at the all-important pass protection in Dana Holgorsen's pass offense.
Gillespie has offered no other option early in spring practice.
"I'm fine putting Ryan Clarke back there to carry the ball and block and I'm fine putting Trey Johnson out there to run out the backside and go cut the defensive end as much as I am Lindamood - but Trey Johnson better get his little (posterior) back there and cut that end if he wants to play football and carry the ball," Gillespie said. "That's the way we're teaching them right now."
Holgorsen's offense behaves pretty consistently with a rapid pace and deviations to adapt to what the defense offers. His offenses averaged 75.5, 82.1 and 78.1 plays the past three years at Oklahoma State (2010) and Houston (2008-09).
Ideally, one back would get 40-45 of those snaps in a game, a second would get 20-25 and a third would get the leftovers. It makes no sense to Gillespie to give anyone any more.
"I think sometimes you wrap your offense around one guy and you can only do one thing," he said. "Then the guy misses class or misses practice or gets hurt and the whole offenses changes. This offense won't change. Every one of these guys has to know how to do what everyone else does."
The meeting room has just enough running backs to keep everyone motivated to pursue playing time and not intimidated by the effects of overcrowding. Soon, though, Gillespie will begin to look ahead with a few of the current players on his mind, but he'll also incorporate the incoming freshmen.
Gillespie recruited and the Mountaineers signed running backs Andrew Buie (5-9, 190) and Dustin Garrison (5-8, 160) in the winter. If all goes according to plan, they'll arrive during the summer and jump right into the competition.
"Four days into it, I'm learning what these guys do, but I'm already starting to think about the guys who'll be here in the summer and thinking, 'I wonder if he can do this. This guy is probably not going to be able to do what this guy can do,'" Gillespie said. "They actually factor into it as I wrap my mind around what these guys can do."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.