MORGANTOWN — With Big 12 Media Day just a week off, can football season be that far behind?
That means it is time to begin dusting off those questions that have grown only trickier since last season in regards to the most unsettled West Virginia football team since Rich Rodriguez took over as the 20th century became the 21st.
With a new coach and with an SUV full of former players heading to the NFL, certainly there is far more perplexing a challenge than the The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle for first-year coach Neal Brown.
It begins at quarterback, where the starting nod was leaning toward Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall over Jack Allison and Trey Lowe III.
But considering all that swirls around this team, the key to success may come in an area that tends to be overlooked.
That would be the running back room, which is chock full of talent and variety from which Brown can pick and choose according to situation. But even he has admitted that in the past the best of all worlds is to have one key running back upon which to lean.
Certainly, the running backs themselves know just how vital their role is on an offense that is unproven at both quarterback and wide receiver, where the Mountaineers lost three players who caught 155 passes for 2,602 yards and 30 touchdowns in Gary Jennings Jr., David Sills V and Marcus Simms.
“Besides the offensive line, I think the running back room has the most experience,” leading returning rusher Kennedy McKoy said recently. “So I don’t want to say we’re the biggest part, but we’re kind of seeing ourselves as the heartbeat of the offense. So we’re trying every day to get people going.”
Think about the significance of that statement and, if true, what kind of team WVU will field next season. It’s a team far more Rich Rodriguez than Dana Holgorsen in nature, for it figures to have far more infantry than air force in its approach.
There is the all-purpose McKoy, a fourth-year player playing under his fourth position coach. There is powerful Leddie Brown, a true sophomore, to go with Martell Pettaway who also offers an inside slant. Then there’s speedy sophomore Alec Sinkfield, who may give the exciting outside game that both Noel Devine and Tavon Austin offered in the past.
The question is whether this is a plethora of riches or simply a Rubik’s cube of possibilities that must be worked out.
Certainly the running tradition at WVU has been built over the years, from Amos Zereoue to Avon Cobourne to Steve Slaton to Pat White to Devine to Wendell Smallwood ... and success seems to follow the running game.
Times, of course, have changed. While once the measuring stick for a running back was 1,000 yards in a season, that certainly should go up to maybe 1,200, for these are no longer 10 or 11-game seasons but instead 12 or 13 or even 14-game seasons.
To gain 1,000 yards in a 13-game season is to average fewer than 80 yards per game.
The truth is, since WVU joined the Big 12 in 1991, WVU has compiled a 143-82 record in seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher for a .636 winning percentage. The winning percentage without a 1,000-yard rusher is .554.
Since Devine rushed for 1,415 yards during a 9-4 season in 2009, WVU has had only four 1,000-yard rushers in nine seasons, with only Smallwood surpassing Devine’s total with 1,519 in 2015.
If they share the ball the way it looks like they might, this could be another season like last year when no one reached 1,000 yards. McKoy finished at 802 and Pettaway at 623.
McKoy says no one is worrying about individual numbers.
“We all take responsibility,” he said. “We know what we have to get done.”
That is going to include catching passes, for Coach Brown has seen that all of them have the ability to do that; it could be a way to get Sinkfield free on the perimeter to display his moves and speed.