This week, we're featuring five Big 12 players on the spot this spring. Maybe they're coming back from injury. Maybe they have much to prove after a disappointing 2013 season. Maybe they're embroiled in a key position battle. Whatever the case, this spring is big for them.
Today's player on the spot: West Virginia running back Dreamius Smith
When Smith first committed to West Virginia, it looked as if he had a clear path to playing time in Morgantown. Smith was the No. 1 juco running back in the country, and Andrew Buie was his only apparent competition for the position.
But Charles Sims transferred in from Houston last summer and took over the starting job. Smith had to settle for a backup role.
This spring, Sims is gone. However, Smith has much to prove going into his senior season because of the arrival of another high-profile transfer.
Rushel Shell, who transferred from Pittsburgh, was the No. 3 running back from the Class of 2012. He broke the Pennsylvania high school rushing record before signing with the Panthers. And after sitting out last season, Shell already has begun to turn heads this spring.
That’s why Smith is one of our players on the spot this spring. He started out the spring atop the depth chart. But to stay there, he’ll have to perform at a high level to fend off Shell, among several others.
"We're deep,” Smith told reporters earlier this spring. “Wendell [Smallwood] is a speed back who can catch the ball and line up at receiver. Rushel Shell is a power back that has some speed. Dustin Garrison and Buie are guys that everyone has seen play before.
"Every rep counts. There are five quality guys competing right now, and that's how the coaches will decide who gets to play. I have to go as hard as I can."
Smith performed at a high level at times last season. He scored West Virginia’s only touchdown against Oklahoma on Sept. 7 on a bulldozing, 76-yard touchdown run. On Oct. 19, he rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Texas Tech.
But in the second half of the season, his production declined. So did his carries, as Smallwood emerged as an alternative as a backup to Sims.
“Dreamius played Texas Tech, and he was coming along. Then we had Kansas State, and he probably played the worst game he has ever played [seven carries for 23 yards],” running backs coach JaJuan Seider said at the advent of West Virginia’s first spring practice. “If you're going to go that way, well, guess what, now you push more carries to the guy you trust. That got Dreamius to come around and realize that, ‘Hey man, I've only got so many years to do this so I've got to go.’”
Smith apparently has put in the work this offseason. He’s slimmed down 15 pounds to improve his breakaway speed and has done it without losing his tackle-breaking strength.
He’s also been focused on refining his pass blocking, which was an Achilles heel last season that cost him time on the field.
“Pass blocking was one of my weaknesses last year, and I know coming in this year, that’s a thing I’ve gotten better at,” Smith said. “I’m just going to use that and translate that to the field and just play my game.”
When on his game, Smith has the talent to be one of the Big 12’s best running backs. But whether he gets the chance to showcase that next season will hinge heavily on what he shows this spring.