MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Leddie Brown became just the eighth West Virginia University running back to eclipse 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons last year.
Brown was West Virginia’s leading rusher, and received nearly 70 percent of the handoffs to running backs.
The sixth-leading rusher in program history has since entered his name into the NFL Draft and participated in the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month.
Despite Brown’s 2,888 career rushing yards and four years of experience exiting the program, there is a sense that this year’s group of WVU running backs could be special.
“I think we have two or three guys back there that can make home run plays at any point,” said offensive lineman James Gmiter on Saturday.
The leader of the Mountaineers agrees.
“We’re going to miss Leddie Brown, he was a very consistent player for us, but this is the best room we’ve had as far as top-down talent-wise,” head coach Neal Brown stated last week after the first practice of the spring. “I think that all four of those guys give us a chance.”
Tony Mathis Jr. is expected to take over the lead back assignment for West Virginia this fall.
“Mathis, you know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s consistent,” said Gmiter.
The redshirt junior averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season. He carried the ball a total of 72 times for 312 yards.
“I really like the leadership that Tony Mathis is showing,” Brown said. “The game has really slowed down for him. He’s calm. He feels really confident, not only running the ball, but his route running is vastly improved.”
There’s hope that he will show the promise he displayed as the Georgia Class 5A Offensive Player of the Year in 2018. According to Brown, what he has seen from Mathis Jr. over the past three months backs up that hope.
“I thought [Mathis Jr.] finished the season well last year,” Brown said. “He had as good an offseason as anybody in our program.”
Behind Mathis Jr. will be a combination of transfer running back Lyn-J Dixon, and sophomore Justin Johnson Jr.
Dixon set a program record for yards per carry during his freshman season at Clemson, but saw his number of carries go down after rushing over 100 times as a sophomore. He redshirted last year before coming to WVU.
“Lyn-J’s still new to the program, so he’s still trying to pick up on little things,” said Gmiter. “We’re doing a good job up front trying to make sure we communicate – over communicate -, so he knows who we have, who he has, just to make it easier for him and reassuring to him.”
Brown described Dixon as a “home run hitter,” and said that he was eager on the first day of practice to show the coaching staff what he could do.
Brown added that is what you want to see out of a new player
Johnson Jr. saw a limited number of carries with the Mountaineers as a freshman in 2021.
He ran 10 times for 42 yards against Long Island, got a combined nine carries during the rest of the regular season, and then rushed five times for 35 yards against Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
“I think getting to play some at the end of last year was benefitial to him,” Brown said.
Johnson Jr.’s 7.0 yards per carry against the Golden Gophers was the best among Mountaineer ball carriers.
“A guy going from year one to year two, and you expect that [improvement],” Brown said of Johnson. “You know, I talked about Lance Dixon, a first-year guy, Justin Johnson, I think, we could see the same kind of [improvement]. He played well in the bowl game, and he looked really comfortable.”
Also in the mix to tote the rock this season is redshirt freshman Jaylen Anderson.
Brown described him as a “natural runner,” and said “he looks effortless out there.”
Anderson was used in a number of ways, and at a number of positions, as a high school standout in Perry, Ohio.
While Anderson getting his weight down is a goal that Brown noted for the tailback for the spring, the versatility he brings could allow him to get on the field in spots other than just running back.
That appears to be the case for everyone in the running back room outside of Mathis, who is primarily going to be called on to perform as a running back.
According to Brown, when not in the game at running back, multiple players from the group could see time on special teams as returners.
As a team, West Virginia averaged 123.2 rushing yards per game last season, which ranked last in the Big 12. It was the second time since 2019 that the Mountaineers finished a year at the bottom of the conference in the category.