Versatile Wendell Smallwood could be a key to West Virginia's offense

The Mountaineers are expecting Wendell Smallwood to be the next in a long line of versatile offensive playmakers Dana Holgorsen has coached. Justin Ford/USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS -- Dana Holgorsen has seen some pretty versatile offensive threats during his time as a college football coach.

Charles Sims. Joseph Randle. Tavon Austin. Shannon Woods.

West Virginia’s head coach has worked with plenty of playmakers while showing he won’t think twice about using a versatile running threat to test defenses with their receiving skills if they prove they can handle it.

Mountaineers running back Wendell Smallwood could end up being the best of the bunch.

“He's potentially the most versatile guy I've ever been around,” Holgorsen said during Big 12 media days last week. “There's a reason Wendell Smallwood was here today. He sat there and learned from Charles Sims during his true freshman year, wasn't needed as much as we needed Charles two years ago this past year, but he was arguably our best back in terms of being able to carry the ball and line up as a receiver and catch the ball.”

Sims transferred to WVU for his final season after excelling at Houston for three years. While Smallwood was learning behind him during the graduate transfer’s senior season, Sims finished with 208 carries for 1,095 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 45 receptions for 401 yards and three touchdowns in 2013.

“He kind of reminds me a little of Charles,” safety Karl Joseph said. “I definitely think he can be that kind of player this year.”

Smallwood wasn’t that far off a year ago. The Mountaineers running back finished with 148 carries for 722 yards and two touchdowns along with 31 receptions for 326 yards as a sophomore.

“I knew I could catch the ball as well as anyone,” Smallwood said, while noting his versatility allows WVU to use its running back depth while also opening up added playing time for himself. “Last year when Charles left, I started seeing I could do the exact things he could do and it kept me on the field a lot. That’s when I realized this is what I need to be doing, catching the ball and running the ball.”

Smallwood’s versatility shone through but the big-play ability that defines elite playmakers escaped him. Overshadowed by the explosive nature of Kevin White and blazing acceleration of Mario Alford, Smallwood had just five plays of 25 yards or more in 2014. By comparison, Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine had 14 plays of 25 yards or more and TCU’s Aaron Green had 11.

This fall, he hopes to become a playmaker who helps replace the explosive big plays of White while continuing to stake his claim as the conference’s most versatile performer.

“I want to step up, make big plays and be a big contributor to the offense,” Smallwood said. “I wanted to be it last year and I did a little bit but this year I want to step up and be that guy.”

The junior’s three total touchdowns as a collegian make it easy to have reservations about his ability to change games. But Joseph has a message for anyone who doubts his teammate.

“If you came to practice, you’d see yourself,” Joseph said. “He has a lot of talent. He’s fast, he reads holes real quick. If you’re not in the right position, he’ll make you pay for it and he has the speed to take it all the way, any down. He’s very versatile.”