WVU takes steps to improve its running attack

West Virginia is banking on steady improvement in 2016, based in part on a steady running game.

Running back Wendell Smallwood had 1,519 yards rushing last year and WVU was 16th in the nation in rushing yardage. Smallwood went in the NFL draft. The top returning back is senior Rushel Shell, who got more than 700 yards last season.

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen hired Joe Wickline as offensive coordinator. Both had been assistants at Oklahoma State. “Arguably the best ‘O’ line coach I’ve been around, and I’ve made that statement on more than one coach,” Holgorsen said during Big 12 Media Days. “He brings a wealth of knowledge. I’ve got a good ‘A’ line coach in Ron Crook, who is still heading up the offensive line meetings. What Joe is going to bring to the table is he’s got a wealth of knowledge when it comes to football in general.

“I feel like we need to get back to our roots just a little bit more, maintain the run game that we did last year that allowed us to have the Big 12 leading rusher in Wendell Smallwood, and though he’s moved on to the NFL, I feel like we’ve got three capable bodies to do the same stuff that Wendell did, and then we’ve got to improve in the pass game. Averaging 35 points a game, being a top-20 offense isn’t good enough in this league. So we’ve got to move the ball a little bit more, score a little bit more points if we want to be in contention to win it.”

Quarterback Skyler Howard returns. The West Virginia offense was No. 23 in the nation in total yardage last season and No. 42 in passing. Howard showed flashes of brilliance last year but had some off moments, too.

“It is it’s been a huge emphasis for us,” Holgorsen said. “Winning games and losing games, everybody points the finger at me. Being effective in the passing game everybody points the finger at him. So being able to have a more comfortable pocket, having a good rapport with the receivers that were all young guys and keep in mind, Skyler, that was really his first year of playing football for West Virginia as well. Those two things, I think, are going to make a huge difference.

“So having Coach Wickline be able to widen that pocket a little bit, having the timing with him and all these receivers that we got, I think it’s going to make a bunch of difference and if we can maintain the running game where we were at and improving that passing game a little bit I feel like we’ll be where we need to be.”

Five key receivers – including Daikiel Shorts (45 receptions last year) and Shelton Gibson (887 receiving yards and nine scores) – return to boost the offense.

The Mountaineer defense was second in the nation last year with 23 interceptions but five of the defensive backs with more than one pick each have graduated. Remaining players had a total of only four interceptions.

WVU lost safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski and both were All Americans. Returnee Dravon Askew-Henry is the top returning tackler (59). Noble Nwachukwu led the team in tackles for loss (13.0) and sacks (8.5) last season.

Holgorsen likes the move to bring back a Big 12 championship game.

“Yeah, I’m in favor of a championship game,” Holgorsen said. “There is no question. I’ve said this for a couple years, the thing I don’t like about not having a championship game is having these games, these regular season games that first week of December. I think that hurts the teams that are playing from a recruiting perspective and it helps the teams that are playing if it’s a situation where you’re being considered for CFP or, you know, a top-tier Bowl game. I just don’t like the format. I think you need to find the best two teams. I got all the confidence in the world with the Big 12 administration, Commissioner Bowlsby and to figure that out. I don’t have the answer, and it really doesn’t matter what I think anyway.”

Holgorsen likes the idea of the Big 12 expanding.

“It certainly wouldn’t hurt,” Holgorsen said. “I’m in favor of expansion. I’m on the side of my boss President Gee who is in favor of expansion as well. So, you know, who, that’s not for me to say. There’s a lot of things that go into it that I don’t have the knowledge to be able to discuss.

“I would like to see two teams added. I would like a good, round number of 12. I was in the Big 12 for a long time and we had 12. It makes those divisional breakups easier and it makes trying to get a championship together a little easier as well.”

West Virginia was 8-5 last year, including a 43-42 win over Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl.

West Virginia’s nonconference games this year are against former Big 12 member Missouri, Youngstown State and BYU (at a neutral field in Landover, Maryland).