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Crawford, with a wife and two sons, now leading Mountaineers

A month before Justin Crawford filled two of the most important shoes left open after last season at West Virginia, he was working nights at Taco Bell.

Sound appetizing?

Crawford, in fact, harbored no affinity for cheesy gorditas. He needed to support his family, a quest that predates his two years at Northwest Mississippi Community College and took a sharp turn in January.

In the week after West Virginia won the Cactus Bowl, Big 12 rushing leader Wendell Smallwood declared for the NFL draft, a major loss for the Mountaineers.

WVU planned to sign a pair of backs in its 2016 class, and veteran Rushel Shell was set to return as the workhorse. But offensive coordinator Joe Wickline and running backs coach Jajuan Seider knew they needed something more at the position to operate offensively as envisioned.

Right away, film surfaced of Crawford. He had committed to Louisville out of high school in Columbus, Georgia, and was considering Missouri and South Carolina after he rushed for 1,610 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior college sophomore.

But widespread recruiting attention had evaded the NJCAA offensive player of the year.

"The first thing I said was, 'How in the heck is this kid still available?'" Seider said.

He was Smallwood all over again, thought Seider. If Crawford checked out OK, the coach vowed to recruit Crawford with maximum intensity in the four weeks that remained before signing day.

Turns out, checking on Crawford found a motivated prospect who didn't care about labels and wanted to work for all that he received.

"He doesn't have his hand out," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said, "which is refreshing."

As a first-year player, Holgorsen has not allowed Crawford to speak to the media. So far, he's play is speaking loudly enough. Through three games, Crawford leads West Virginia in rushing with 227 yards while splitting time with Shell. The newcomer has also caught eight passes, most among WVU running backs. He adds a play-making element to an underrated group of skill players as unbeaten West Virginia opens Big 12 play Saturday at home against Kansas State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).

Holgorsen said he, too, harbored initial concerns about Crawford, who attempted to divide his time between family, academics and football in a way that most players fail to understand.

"You always worry about kids like that," the sixth-year WVU coach said, "if they're going to use [the family] as an excuse to not do what they're supposed to do -- or if they're going to use it as motivation to make something of themselves."

Crawford largely erased any concerns in the summer, weeks after he arrived on campus in Morgantown. He formed an immediate bond with Shell, who is the father of three children, and went to work at cementing his spot as a leader among the Mountaineers.

"He's not afraid to speak his mind," said Seider, the running backs coach. "He will say some things that make you wonder. He comes off a little different, but he's exactly what every team needs. He has a voice on the team. As soon as he stepped on the field in the summer, he brought it."

And then, Crawford really went to work.

In July, he got a job at a Taco Bell near the WVU campus.

The coaches in Morgantown learned of Crawford's situation and brought him in for a long talk.

"Dude, you can't do this when the season starts," Holgorsen said he told Crawford.

Crawford said he understood but told the coaches that practice didn't begin for another two weeks. He wanted to keep working -- and he did, until about Aug. 1, supporting his wife and two boys.

"That's a kid I want," Seider said, "because he's highly motivated. He didn't want to have to do it, but he was being Justin. He was just being a man; that's what I call it. He was being a man and taking care of responsibilities."

And this was nothing new.

While playing junior college ball in Senatobia, Mississippi, Crawford held several jobs in fast food and elsewhere, according to Northwest Mississippi CC coach Benjy Parker, who was defensive coordinator at the school during Crawford's juco career.

His team often played Thursday games, so Crawford arranged his work schedule for Friday and Saturday while teammates got their rest.

"If he had a free minute, he wanted to go work for his money," Parker said. "When I saw that, it said a whole lot to me about his character."

Justin and Chakeya were married before Crawford's sophomore year in Mississippi.

Crawford is one of seven siblings. After his father died, Crawford attended two years of high school in Gainesville, Florida, then moved to Georgia.

When his team won the Mississippi Bowl in December and Crawford accumulated 190 yards and scored twice in his final junior college game, he broke down in tears, wishing that his father could have seen him play at this level.

"A lot of people saw him running the ball 25 times on Thursday nights," said Jake Long, the Northwest Mississippi athletic academic advisor who has remained close to Crawford. "They didn't know the whole story."

The whole story now includes a chapter about Crawford's early success at West Virginia.

In the Mountaineers' 26-11 victory over Missouri to open the season, Crawford rushed 21 times for 101 yards and caught five passes. More notably, Seider said, Crawford scored better than a 95 on the Mountaineers' grading scale.

"He had no missed assignments," Seider said. "I looked at that and said it can't be right. But it was."

Teammates notice that Crawford has backed up his talk.

"It's kind of do or die for him," West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard said. "He wants to support his family and wants to put food on the table, whether that's with a degree or going to the NFL."

His wife secured work in Morgantown. Additionally, because of his unique circumstances, Crawford may be eligible to receive extra assistance from West Virginia through his cost-of-attendance stipend.

And he continues to work to support his family -- solely, though, as a student and through football.