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Emergence of Justin Crawford helps West Virginia’s offense

Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

Running back Wendell Smallwood was on the sidelines when the West Virginia Mountaineers opened their 2016 season against the Missouri Tigers. Instead of donning the navy and gold uniform, he was in street closes supporting his former team–he is now a Philadelphia Eagle.

Last year, Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing with 1,519 yards and nine touchdowns. That means West Virginia had to replace 51.2 percent of its rushing yards from 2015.

Entering this season, senior back Rushel Shell was named Smallwood’s replacement at starter. While Shell had a solid outing against the Tigers — 90 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries — backup Justin Crawford stole the show for West Virginia against Missouri.

The former JUCO Player of the Year rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown in his first ever Division I game. He showed flashes of speed–he had a 29-yard burst–and power. With the talent the junior back showed against a high-level SEC defense, the Mountaineers have another weapon in their high-octane offense.

West Virginia fans knew exactly what they were getting with Shell heading into this year. Shell is a former five-star who topped at least 700 yards rushing over the past two seasons. On the other hand, Mountaineer fans didn’t exactly know what they were getting in Crawford.

Yes, as mentioned, he was named the 2015 JUCO Player of the Year, but he was playing junior college competition. Division I is vastly different from the JUCO ranks. Just take a look at Auburn quarterback Jonathan Franklin III.

Last year, Franklin dominated at East Mississippi Community College when he played. Now, he is the Tigers’ third string quarterback–behind two subpar signal callers (Jeremy Johnson and Sean White). Crawford proving he can hang with high-level Division I talent should keep West Virginia fans at ease whenever head coach Dana Holgorsen calls his number. The talent Crawford showed Saturday against Missouri should keep the Mountaineer faithful at rest if Shell ever goes down with an injury.

Although his numbers don’t reflect it–five receptions for nine yards–Crawford did prove against Missouri to be a worthy asset as a pass catcher for West Virginia.

Crawford had only one catch to show what he can do when he is utilized in the passing game. That catch was a 10-yard gain. Opposing defenses will have to stay true and keep an eye on Crawford out of the backfield when the Mountaineers throw the ball.

Since opponents will have to key on Crawford out of the backfield when West Virginia decides to pass, that should free up playmaking wide receivers Daikiel Shorts–eight catches for 131 yards against Missouri–and Shelton Gibson, who posted a 24-yards-per-reception average in 2015.

The emergence of Crawford should limit the amount of rushing attempts quarterback Skyler Howard takes this season as well. Howard showed last year that he could be a decent running option for the Mountaineers. The signal caller rushed for 502 yards and six scores on 157 carries in 2015. However, Howard running the ball could become costly, as hinted against Missouri.

The 6-foot quarterback injured his ribs when he landed awkwardly after rushing the ball in the second quarter. With that injury, the Mountaineers had to use backup Chris Chugunov for a couple plays; he wasn’t overly impressive, going 0-for-2 with an interception. Crawford’s dependability should limit Howard’s carries; accordingly, it will also limit his chances of being injured for a significant amount of time this year.

Holgorsen is known for creating potent offenses. With Crawford becoming a worthy component, West Virginia’s offense should become even better in 2016 than it was in 2015.

“I was as impressed with him as I’ve been the last five weeks,” Holgorsen said. “I’ve hinted at it. He’s a good player and I think he’s just getting started.”

If Crawford is just getting started, the remaining 11 defenses he will play this year need to take notice: West Virginia’s offense can become a deadly unit in 2016.

Emergence of Justin Crawford helps West Virginia’s offense

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