Before spring practices even began, West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown said the team’s focus this offseason will be developing quality depth at the running back position.
Senior starter Leddie Brown enjoyed a break-out 2020 campaign, finishing as the Big 12’s second-leading rusher with 1,010 rushing yards. However, the rest of WVU’s running back room ran for just 428 yards, most of which came from Alec Sinkfield who transferred to Boston College this offseason.
So this spring, Neal Brown and the Mountaineers are focus on finding out which running backs can be productive playing behind Leddie Brown.
“I think you’ve got to have at least three running backs prepared to play,” Neal Brown said over the weekend. “We were fortunate last year with Leddie, but I think we need help running the football as far as [Leddie] can’t be the only guy that’s carrying the load. We’ve got to be more productive out of that second running back spot.”
Neal Brown said underclassmen Tony Mathis and A’Varrius Sparrow will both have full opportunities this spring to show WVU’s coaching staff that they are ready to play. True freshmen Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson will also be joining the team in the fall.
“The way we’re attacking this is that we’ve got two guys that’ve got 15 opportunities in the spring, Tony Mathis and A’Varrius Sparrow,” Neal Brown said. “They’re competing and we’ve got two more guys who’re true freshmen who will be here in fall camp that’ll have the same opportunity.”
Mathis flashed a couple of nice runs during the team’s scrimmage on Saturday that impressed WVU running backs coach Chad Scott. Scott said Matthis did a good job of leading defenders into his blockers, freeing himself up for success.
“I’ve seen glimpses of it, but to see him do it repeatedly, play after play was really good,” Scott said after practice Monday. “It was not one of his strengths before, it has become one of his strengths now. So from this point, now it’s about stacking consistency in doing that.”
Mathis, a redshirt-sophomore, carried the ball 18 times last season, gaining 55 yards and scoring one touchdown. Leddie Brown said he sees a lot of himself in the Orlando native.
“Tony is more like me,” Leddie Brown said. “He’s really explosive and really strong and can make tough runs. He’s coming along really well as we get farther and farther into spring.”
Sparrow, a true sophomore, had just three carries for 10 yards last season. Scott said Saturday’s scrimmage was Sparrow’s best day since coming to WVU.
“That was his best practice since he’s been here,” Scott said. “He had a bad habit of chopping his feet to change direction. At this level, if you chop your feet as opposed to one cut, that defense closes on you fast. Saturday was his first time doing it over a complete practice. It was really good to see him do that because if he can do that for us, with his speed, that’s huge.”
Leddie Brown said Sparrow is thinking too fast for his body to keep up right now.
“Sparrow is more like a speed guy,” Leddie Brown said. “He’s thinking a little fast, he needs to slow the game down. But I think he’s going to catch on as spring goes along.”
Despite having different running styles, Scott said he thinks both Mathis and Sparrow will be able to have success in a variety of running schemes WVU uses. Scott said even Johnson and Anderson should be able to find success in a lot of different schemes, as long as they catch on quick enough in the fall.
“Those guys can have success at any running scheme if they understand where their eyes are supposed to be and how to bring their read-keys to their blocks to create space for themselves,” Scott said.
The Mountaineers get a bit of a break from spring practice following Monday, not practicing again until Thursday this week. They are also scheduled to practice on Saturday this weekend.