Finding a reliable backup for senior running back Leddie Brown. That’s been the main emphasis this offseason and now into fall camp. So, after one week of preseason work in the books, how will position coach Chad Scott decide who gets that No. 2 spot?
“They are going to determine that themselves,” Scott said.
And the way to do that is just as simple as Scott’s answer — show your talent matches your production.
“Production in our room is defined by what you do beyond what’s blocked. The offensive line upfront does a great job of blocking everyone in the box and it’s the safeties or free hitters that show up — those are the guys we got to be able to make plays against. Whether it’s true avoid-ability, make them miss or break tackles and make yards after contact,” Scott said. “Their ability to be able to do that on a consistent level will help me, and them, determine that.”
The two front runners in that category as of Friday are redshirt sophomore Tony Mathis and freshman Justin Johnson. Scott said Mathis has continued to surge and Johnson is showing he can do the same. But the main question remains unanswered — can they check into the game and keep up with the standard Brown has set as the position?
“Obviously, Leddie is an elite player but when he isn’t in the football game we can’t have a big drop-off. We have to have production behind him,” Scott said. “Tony Mathis did a phenomenal job in the spring, he’s doing a great job at it right now. Justin Johnson is doing well, too. We have to have someone reliable.”
So, it seems time is still needed before an answer is provided.
Redshirt freshman A’Varius Sparrow is also competing for that backup role, but it seems he has fallen behind in terms of development.
“He’s got to continue to come on. Being here in the program for a year, we’d like to see him be a little further than where he is now,” Scott said. “He has the ability and capability to do it. So, he needs to just do it. We would like to see him further along than where he is, but it’s practice number seven or so, so he’s got time.”
Sparrow may need a little more time until he reaches his expectations, but the newcomer, Johnson, has proven he doesn’t need much of it to show his potential in a backup role.
“It’s been really pleasing to see that kid,” Scott said of Johnson. “Pass protection is the toughest responsibility for a young running back. First, the recognition of it, then secondly, the actual physical part of picking it up, picking up bigger guys you’ve never picked up in your life. He’s done a phenomenal job of doing both. Phenomenal balance, great vision.”
And the high praise for the new kid in the backfield didn’t stop there.
“Since I’ve been with Coach Brown, from a freshman standpoint, he’s probably had the best summer of any freshman we’ve ever been around and in every regard — weight room, academics. To see him carry that to fall camp has been really pleasing,” Scott added.
At the start of fall camp, Neal Brown said if the Mountaineers had to line up and play right now, Mathis would be the guy in that backup spot. His strength has always been the core of his game. Coach Scott attributes that to the excellent strength program at Mathis’ high school. It’s controlling that power and using it on the playing surface that will continue to set him apart.
“He’s running the ball at an elite level,” Scott said. “He had to find a way to take his strength from the weight room to the football field. That’s what we have been working at this offseason. In the spring he did and he’s doing it right now. That’s giving him the confidence to know I can run and break tackles after contact. He’s running with confidence.”
The area that continues to be a focal point for Mathis is his ball skills. Coach Scott equated it to making free throws in basketball. The more you practice, the more you will make. It’s the same concept with Mathis — in order to get better at catching he has to practice.
When it comes to the position, there are two things for certain: Leddie Brown will be hungry to prove his doubters wrong and his backup will be just as hungry to prove the game is in capable hands when Brown needs a breather.