Mike Casazza: Smallwood ready to make an impact for WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Wendell Smallwood had no idea who Charles Sims was when they first met. Hadn't heard of him. Had no clue Sims would change his life.
Yet it didn't take the freshman long to see the transfer from the University of Houston as who and what he needed to make the most of his first season of college football.
"As soon as he stepped on campus during offseason 7-of-7 stuff, just watching him do the drills, I was like, 'Yeah, that's the guy,' " Smallwood said. "I thought I could learn a lot from him."
And that was before Smallwood really got to know Sims, before became to understand Sims had already learned the offense when he was at Houston in 2009 and WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator.
Smallwood has shadowed and mimicked Sims ever since and the Mountaineers have grown to use Smallwood much the same way they've used Sims in his one season with team, the one that ends with Saturday's 4 p.m. game against Iowa State at Mountaineer Field.
"I met Charles as a true freshman, and there is no difference," Holgorsen said. "Charles has been able to endure four long seasons and a lot of touches and a lot of ball games and he's handled it unbelievably well and will do so in the NFL for a long time. Wendell as a true freshman is no different than Charles was."
Sims is an every-down back who can play in any situation. He's been WVU's most valuable, most reliable and most admirable offensive player, and the numbers don't lie with regard to his role and WVU's fortunes. In four wins, he averages 20.8 offensive touches and 112.5 yards of offense. In seven losses, the numbers dip to 14.4 touches and 70.9 yards. He runs the ball inside and outside, he runs routes and catches passes and he's about to be part of the past.
His impact is undeniable, so much so that he's one of the best running backs Holgorsen has ever had. Twice. And while the Mountaineers are prepared to say goodbye to the player, they are not ready to bid adieu to the role in the offense. This is where the bond between Sims and Smallwood is so important.
"If he's Sims next year," running backs coach JaJuan Seider said, "I'm a happy man."
If you've watched Smallwood slowly supplant Dreamius Smith the past few games and if you've seen Smallwood try to spark the offense in separate games, you've noticed what looks like a plan for WVU's future.
"The potential is definitely there - hell, he has it now," Seider said. "He's not afraid of the show. He doesn't have the deer-in-the-headlights thing. He belongs on the field."
He's there now and it doesn't seem like he'll be leaving anytime soon, not when you consider how far he's come this season. He enrolled in January and was the fifth running back on the depth chart when spring practice started in March. By the end of preseason practice in August, he was ahead of juniors Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, the leading rushers in each of the past two seasons.
The Mountaineers could already see Sims rubbing off on Smallwood, which probably explains how and why Smallwood has been ahead of Smith on the depth chart for weeks.
"When you approach football like it's your life when you're playing - and what I mean by that is it means more to you than just a game - then something good is going to happen for you," Seider said.
"The thing about Charles is you can watch him work after practice with the receivers and the defensive backs, not to help himself, but to help those guys.
"What you always want is for your freshmen to emulate someone in front of them who does the right things and not the bad things. It's all right to be a follower if you follow the right person because that follower might be a leader down the road."
Smallwood says he was just a running back, as opposed to an all-around back, when he played at Maryland's Eastern Christian Academy, where he had quite the teammate in fellow WVU freshman Daikiel Shorts, who is tied with Sims for the team lead in receptions.
And because this is new, his numbers aren't close to the same as those of Sims. He has 207 yards rushing, Sims has 946 and nine touchdowns. He has 11 receptions for 132 yards, Sims had 43 for 371 yards and three more scores. They don't really even run the same.
"He's got more moves," said Smallwood, who at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds is 1 inch and 20 pounds smaller. "I think I have moves, too, but I'd rather run through or run past you."
The comparison shouldn't be how they do things, but rather what they're doing. Sims averages 5.8 yards per touch. Smallwood averages 7.5. Sims catches screen passes and throws out into the flat. So does Smallwood. Smallwood lines up as a receiver and can run any of a receiver's routes. Same with Sims.
When the Mountaineers plan to run the ball, they look to Sims. When they want to throw passes on the perimeter, they use Sims. When WVU needed plays late against Texas, Smallwood was the pick. When the offense was desperately seeking points against Kansas, it was Smallwood again.
Why, when Holgorsen was tired of his "garbage" kickoff returns, Smallwood became the kickoff returner, and he'd have really good numbers there if not for some holding penalties that have wiped out long returns.
He's very aware of the comparison at present and the possibilities for the future.
"Yeah," Smallwood said, "but I want to be better."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.