When the transfer of Charles Sims to West Virginia's football team was confirmed a year ago, conventional wisdom held that the move would make it tougher for true freshman Wendell Smallwood to see the field. As it turned out, he was good enough to earn playing time anyway, but he was still behind the NFL prospect on the depth chart.
Some players might have bemoaned that fate and slacked off, but Smallwood chose to use the year to bolster his versatility. Repping behind Smith, he picked up a good deal as he prepared to try to take over Sims' role in 2014.
"I learned a lot from him last year. Everything they did with him last year, they had me lining up behind him and prepping me for it," Smallwood noted. "I was right behind him every step of the way on the practice field."
While the now-sophomore did spend a lot of time in Sims' shadow, he did get on the field enough to rush for 221 yards and a score. More invitingly, he caught 11 passes for 132 yards (a spiffy 12 yards per catch average), and showed the ability to be a versatile weapon in the offensive attack.
During the spring, Smallwood branched out even more. In addition to running routes out of the backfield or motioning out of his running back position, Smallwood also lined up as a slot on a number of occasions. Termed one of the best inside receivers on the team by head coach Dana Holgorsen, Smallwood showed he can catch the ball from any position. He took to the expanded role right from the start.
"I wanted to do it," he said of his reaction when asked to fill extra duties. "I did it a lot in high school, and I ran a lot of routes there, so I was excited about it. If I line up at running back and receiver, I have a better chance of staying on the field."
While the lessons he learned have helped him improve tremendously, he's still working on one aspect of the receiving game which he didn't have to worry about in high school.
"Reading defenses," he said with a rueful smile when asked about the most difficult part of the game. "Route running was new to me. It's tougher. Usually I just ran past people in high school. Now I have to read people and get off jams. It's tougher, but I'm adjusting to it. I think it has gotten better since the beginning of the spring."
"They are really good," he said of the safeties that have moved down to spots closer to the line this year. "They make me work hard, especially when we are in man-to-man. We are doing a lot of one-on-ones too, and there is always some back and forth. We are always going at it."
Smallwood might end up with a work-heavy role at slot, depending on the progression of other receivers at the position. Mario Alford is expected to be a mainstay on the inside, but with the search still ongoing for more dependable targets, it's possible that Smallwood might see even more action at receiver than anyone thought. That could open up more time for the crowded depth chart at running back in the backfield, but no matter how it shakes out, Smallwood figures to be a big part of West Virginia's offensive game plan.