WVU Football: Should Justin Crawford be the feature running back in 2017?

MORGANTOWN, WV - SEPTEMBER 03: Justin Crawford
MORGANTOWN, WV - SEPTEMBER 03: Justin Crawford /

The WVU football program’s ground game has improved over the last couple seasons thanks to a running back-by-committee approach.

Going back to 2015, Wendell Smallwood was the leader not only for the Mountaineers in rushing, but the entire Big 12. After piling up 1,519 yards and nine touchdowns, the junior opted for the NFL and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rushel Shell expected to assume the load in Smallwood’s absence, but it was Justin Crawford who emerged. After being the top junior college running back in the country, Crawford chose the Mountaineers and racked up 101 yards in the season opener. It was quite the debut to Mountaineer Nation.

Crawford eclipsed 100 yards four more times in 2016, including a monstrous 331-yard effort against Oklahoma and 209 yards against Baylor. Should we expect more consistency from Crawford? Or are these outbursts once a month satisfying our needs?

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There were five games where Crawford rushed for fewer than 86 yards (not including his one-attempt outing against TCU) his first season in Morgantown. Following his 101-yard performance against the SEC’s Missouri Tigers, Crawford only managed 40 yards on 12 carries against Youngstown State; Shell tallied 84 yards. Games three and four saw Crawford total 86 and 104 yards against BYU and Kansas State, respectively. A hot-hand was featured at Texas Tech when Shell galloped for 104 yards and two scores.

Oklahoma and Baylor were in the final stretch of the long season, but it’d be unfair to say Crawford’s lack of production affected the Mountaineer’s offense. His three attempt, 12-yard performance against Texas wasn’t expected. Twenty-nine yards on only seven attempts is all Dana Holgorsen could squeeze out of him at Iowa State, too. Kennedy McKoy was the beneficiary of the game-plan against Texas, rushing 25 times for 73 yards and two scores. Against the Cyclones, the ‘Eers went up early and won 49-19, not needing a superhero performance.

With Skyler Howard departed and the “Year of Grier” upon us, how will defenses adjust to WVU’s attack? The threat of Howard scrambling from the pocket and picking up chunks of yards is gone, with some of those plays designed specifically for him. That’s not Grier’s game anyway, but the Florida-transfer can get the wheels turning if need be.

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Crawford’s first season in gold and blue was one to remember. Totaling 1,184 yards and four scores is the perfect foundation for success, but it can’t be a finished product. If the ‘Eers are to build off last year’s 10-win season and compete for the Big 12 Championship, a steady dose of No. 25 Justin Crawford is required.