This week we've been highlighting the key position battles for every program in the Big 12. We continue this series with West Virginia, which has several capable running backs, but one football to hand off.
Here's where the battle stands:
Who they replace: Charles Sims, who was a first-team All-Big 12 selection and the league's Offensive Newcomer of the Year after transferring in from Houston for his final season. Sims rushed for 1,095 yards and 11 touchdowns, and led all Big 12 running backs with 45 receptions and 401 receiving yards. Thanks in part to his versatility, Sims was a third-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though he suffered an ankle injury this preseason that will likely keep him out for weeks.
What they offer: A lit bit of everything.
Smith, Sims' primary backup last year, is a tough runner, though slimmed down 15 pounds this offseason to improve his breakaway speed.
Smallwood resembles Sims in that he can be an effective receiver out of the backfield. Smallwood came on late last season and overtook Smith in spots as Sims' relief.
Garrison enjoyed a renaissance in the spring after being plagued by injuries the last two seasons. He actually led West Virginia in rushing in 2011, and has big-play potential as a receiver, as well.
Shell might be the most intriguing player in the backfield, if not the entire Mountaineers roster. The leading rusher in Pennsylvania state high school history transferred in to West Virginia after rushing for 641 yards as a freshman at Pitt. The Mountaineers are waiting for Shell's switch to flip. If it does, he could be a punishing runner between the tackles.
Buie and Thomas-Williams round out the backfield. Buie actually led the Mountaineers in rushing two years ago, but left the university before the 2013 season after getting buried on the depth chart. He's back on the roster, but with several other backs on the team, he's trying to get his way back on the field by showing he can fill multiple roles.
That leaves Thomas-Williams, who was one of the gems of Dana Holgorsen's signing class. Thomas-Williams could be the future of the West Virginia backfield, but with so many other options available, he could wind up redshirting.
Prediction: Possessing this many capable backs is a good problem to have, but the Mountaineers are not going to be able to hand out touches to everyone. Most likely, West Virginia will settle into a three-headed rotation, with Smith starting, Smallwood shifting between the backfield and the slot and Shell filling the role of power back. The Mountaineers, however, will have the luxury of riding the hot hand. And with Garrison and Buie, they'll have plenty of depth to dip into should any of the top three suffer an injury.