One of Neal Brown’s goals for the 2021 season is a three-headed monster in the backfield. While senior and 1,000-yard rusher Leddie Brown leads the ground game, there was an emphasis on getting that No. 2 guy to emerge this spring. Brown saw limited reps in contact situations by design, providing an opportunity for the guys behind him, Mathis and fellow sophomore A’Varius Sparrow, to show they can execute in a backup role.
“I think you need to have at least three running backs prepared to play. We were fortunate last year with Leddie but I think we need help running the football, as far as he can’t be the only guy carrying the load, and we have to be more productive out of that second running back spot,” Coach Brown said of running back room in the spring.
Position coach Chad Scott has said a number of times he feels confident he can have three backs ready to produce come September, so lets a take a closer look at the numbers at the position, including the two “elite level” newcomers.
Leddie Brown — senior
The 1,000-yard rusher has something to prove in 2021. Brown wants to show he can reach that milestone in back-to-back seasons. That is one of the main reasons he decided to return to WVU for his senior season.
In his junior campaign, Brown nearly tripled his production from the season prior. His first two seasons with the program saw a combined 813 rushing yards and five touchdowns. In 2020, the stat line read 1,010 yards and 9 TDs on 199 attempts. Those numbers ranked Brown as the second-best running back in the Big 12.
Behind an improved offensive line, there are high hopes Brown will see that same type of production in his final year. He’s confident if he cleans up the little things in his game, it will put him on the right track to gain the attention of NFL scouts. He’s also hoping they will notice his versatility. Brown had 31 receptions for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns this past season. He worked closely with receivers coach Gerad Parker in the spring and Parker praised Brown’s ability to learn routes and catch the ball out of the backfield. Expect him to be more active in the passing game this upcoming season.
Tony Mathis — redshirt sophomore
Mathis really impressed the coaching staff this spring and took most of his reps with the 1’s in place of Brown. He did have a shaky start to the first spring scrimmage, but he recovered quickly and found the end zone twice in that showing. Coach Brown said he was pleased with Mathis’s improvement and “this football team needs him to keep coming.”
As the No. 3 guy on the roster last season, he did see action in six games, tallying 55 yards and one score on 18 touches. Coach Scott said one of the goals for his room is being successful in different run schemes. He wants his backs, no matter their number on the depth chart, to be more versatile, and that’s what he daw from Mathis over 15 practices.
“If you would ask anyone on the staff before now what kind of back Tony Mathis was, it would be he is a downhill, inside zone guy,” Scott said in April. “But if you watch him run the outside zone now, he looks almost as natural as Leddie running the ball in terms of his fluidity changing direction.”
A’Varius Sparrow — sophomore
The Florida native is pretty new to the position. He only played high school football for two years as most of his focus was on wrestling. He played linebacker as a junior and it wasn’t until his senior season that he burst on the scene as a ball carrier.
Sparrow had minimal appearances in 2020. He saw the field in four games and finished with three carries for 10 yards. With Mathis filling Brown’s role in the spring, Sparrow got the reps with the 2’s. In the nontraditional spring game, he finished with the most yards of all the backs, tallying 50 including a 9-yard touchdown run.
Markquan Rucker — redshirt freshman
The West Virginia native caught the attention of the coaching staff a few times back in April. He put up a touchdown during the drills portion of the spring game.
Jaylen Anderson — freshman
In a shortened season at Perry High, he rushed for 875 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also had nine receptions for 124 yards and two scores. He was a four-year starter and was an All-State first-team selection the past two seasons. His junior year saw 1,086 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns accompanied by 51 catches for 833 yards and 11 touchdowns. Anderson is 6-foot and 210 pounds.
Justin Johnson Jr. — freshman
Illinois pushed their fall seasons to the spring, so Johnson is pretty fresh off competition. In six games, he rushed for 1,100 yards and 20 touchdowns on 143 carries. He had three or more rushing scores in all but one game, including a season-high five. The 6-foot, 200 pound back never dipped below the 200-yard mark this past season. Three games saw 200+ while the other three saw 300+ yards.
“We wanted two true running backs that can run and catch the ball out of the backfield. Both have really good size, great balance and they catch the ball naturally out of the backfield. With their build and their strength, they will at least come in and have the willingness to block. I’ll have to teach them the technique and whatnot,” Scott said of the two freshmen.
Departures: Alec Sinkfield
He held the backup role last season and finished with 78 carries for 327 yards and three touchdowns. He transferred out of the program after the bowl game. Over his three-year career at WVU, he played in 27 games and saw 114 rushing attempts for 436 yards and four touchdowns.
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