We continue our West Virginia football 2020 pre-season coverage with our Mountaineers’ 2020 RB/TE preview. Fortunately for the Mountaineers, both position groups return talent from last season.
Mountaineers’ 2020 RB/TE Preview
Running Back Preview
Last season, the Mountaineers’ running game managed only 2.6 yards per carry. West Virginia suffered its worst year in that department since 1968, when they averaged only 2.3 yards per carry. Talent in the backfield did not lack. Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, and Leddie Brown each had seasons where they managed five yards per carry or better. Instead, the Mountaineers’ problems seemingly stemmed from their offensive line.
The problem–an inexperienced offensive line–was not unexpected. After all, the Mountaineers returned only two starters from their 2018 unit. One of those starters, Josh Sills, suffered a season-ending injury, reducing that count to just one: Colton McKivitz. In total, the Mountaineers replaced over 70% of their snaps from offensive line, and there was very little experienced depth to pick from.
As a result, it’s hard to throw much blame at the running backs directly, though it is clear they need to improve as a unit. Head Coach Neal Brown clearly wants to establish a power run game. He also cautioned fans during the Spring, however, that they should expect incremental improvements, not monumental ones.
That said, as we will cover in more detail in our offensive line preview, we expect the line to improve. Offensive Line Coach Matt Moore has recruited some depth, and returning snap counts show a much more experience unit than 2019. As a result, the running backs should find more room to run.
West Virginia fields four scholarship running backs this season. Junior running back Leddie Brown figures to fill the shoes of the workhorse back, and should eat up a majority of the carries. Brown led all running backs in carries and yards last season, though he gained just 3.4 yards per carry in 2019 (to 4.9 YPC in 2018).
Behind Brown, the Mountaineers feature junior Alec Sinkfield and redshirt-freshman Tony Mathis. We have talked about Sinkfield here before, noting his potential as an explosive playmaker. To date, Sinkfield has not proven this billing on the field, though we expect him to have plenty of opportunities to live up to his potential. The coaching staff invariably praised the work ethic and speed of Mathis, and, regardless how Brown and Sinkfield perform, Mathis should have plenty of carries with which to work.
Finally, the Mountaineers added A’Varius Sparrow out of Orlando late in last season’s recruiting cycle. Originally a linebacker, Sparrow converted to running back late in his high school career. He rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns his senior season. According to Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel, Sparrow’s wrestling background allows him to find extra yards after contact almost every play. His unique combination of strength and speed could make him valuable early, especially if the Mountaineers’ line continues to struggle to make holes.
Tight End Preview
Last season, the Mountaineers’ tight ends were relatively quiet. The position group totaled only 10 receptions for 42 yards. Throughout the season, the staff routinely lamented the inexperience at the position. One player in particular, however, took Coach Brown’s blue collar mentality to heart and developed into the well-rounded tight end the staff sought: Mike O’Laughlin. Ironically, O’Laughlin briefly entered the transfer portal once the Mountaineers hired Coach Brown. Brown and Tight Ends Coach Travis Trickett, however, convinced O’Laughlin to stay.
O’Laughlin should see additional targets this season, and he’ll also be asked to help spring the running backs loose. Especially towards the end of last year, O’Laughlin proved he can handle both duties. Behind him, the Mountaineers feature redshirt-sophomore T.J. Banks, a one-time four-star recruit. Banks has the size, strength, and frame for a prototypical tight end, and we anticipate him making an impact as the season winds on.
True freshman Charles Finley rounds out the Mountaineers’ position room. The staff spoke highly of Finley before, during, and after the recruiting process. With Brown’s penchant for using the new redshirt rules to develop depth, we expect Finley to see the field in a handful of games this season, though O’Laughlin and Banks will share the vast majority of the reps here.