The fullback, whose saga has grown after a folklore-like transformation from Division III rusher to West Virginia starter, wants to correct Mountaineer fans. That tale about him denting a facemask against Maryland isn’t the true story. He really didn’t bust up one facemask. He broke three.
There was the first, in the spring game last year. The second came at Maryland when he ran for a team-high 80 yards and three touchdowns. The third was versus Louisville when he entered and torched the tiring Cardinal defense with a 23-yard run and a 20-yard pass reception, both in overtime to set up Steve Slaton scores. The later denting came on one of his six knockdowns in the game.
“It’s in coach Rod’s office,” Schmitt said. “He has it. I don’t know what he is doing with it. I kind of came off the sideline and the equipment manager goes ‘Owen, your facemask is bent.’ I took it off and it was all looped in. I guess I lead with my eyes and the facemask is right there. I didn’t think anything too much of it. It’s just metal. It’s not like it can’t bend.”
Only it’s not, totally. Helmet facemasks are made of reinforced pro carbon (to avoid any shattering) and steel. The Schutt and Air-inflated helmets West Virginia wears, made in Salem, Ill., have five different patents. Schmitt wears the newer version, a style that is supposed to be safer. It does carry the traditional warning about striking opposing players with any part of the helmet or facemask, and that it is “a violation of rules and may cause you to suffer severe brain or neck injury or death.”
Schmitt, however, hasn’t butted or speared any player. He just has his face slightly downward when making contact with players who hit him in the chest, perhaps the worst place to try and tackle a 250-pounder with solid speed and great physicality. It’s like running into rebar-reinforced concrete.
“He is still working hard, running hard and competing every day,” WVU offensive coordinator and running backs coach Calvin Magee said of Schmitt. “He is always asking if he did things right, if that was the way I wanted it. You really like a guy that competes like that.”
When Schmitt first dropped his tape off at WVU, he didn’t think he would have a chance at even playing. It was a prayer, a sort of hail mary, shot-in-the-dark. Now he is a fan favorite and one of only two Mountaineer fullbacks all-time that have never lost a yard. Schmitt ran for 380 last season on 48 carries, an average of 7.9 yards per carry. He scored twice, and nearly had a third when he broke free for 52 yards in the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia.
“I knew they were a good team and that they went to bowls,” Schmitt said of WVU, “but I didn’t think about me playing. I guess a lot of teams focus on Steve and forget about me and I can just sort of sneak out of there. When that Sugar Bowl run opened up, I thought ‘Oh, I gotta score.’ My whole family was in that end zone. I was huffing and puffing as hard as I could to get there. It was an amazing experience for me, especially coming from where I did and growing up in a small town of 400 people. It’s something you think about playing in a big game.”
Schmitt also finished as the fifth-leading receiver on the team, catching eight passes for 76 yards (9.5 yards per catch) and flashing speed. Now he is a candidate to take snaps out of the tailback slot as well, something head coach Rich Rodriguez said he actually did last season, noting that he is really a tailback, and that people only list him as a fullback for fantasy football ventures.
“And he can still run,” quarterback Patrick White said. “Big guys that can run are hard to find, but, of course, Schmitty can run and he’s 250.”