MORGANTOWN - During Monday's one-on-one competition period at West Virginia University preseason football practice, sophomore running back Alec Sinkfield was lined up against freshman defensive back Tykee Smith.
Sinkfield had a brief chat with redshirt junior quarterback Jack Allison before getting set and ready for the snap. He ran straight, then put a move on Smith and broke for the corner of the end zone. Smith played tight defense on the play, but Sinkfield still found a way to haul in a pretty good pass from Allison with one hand and a defensive back draped all over him. It could be a sign of things to come for the West Virginia offense.
The Mountaineers have four running backs - Sinkfield, Kennedy McKoy, Leddie Brown and Martell Pettaway - who will all likely see playing time in 2019. Finding creative ways to get the ball in their hands has been on the to-do list for the new WVU coaching staff and so far during the preseason getting the running backs involved in the passing game appears to be a part of those plans.
"Coming out of spring we realized that we have some talented running backs and we're going to have to use them in a variety of ways," first-year WVU coach Neal Brown said. "We challenged them, particularly Sinkfield and McKoy, to work on their receiving skills and route running during the summer, and I think they're going to help us in those spots. They're going to give us some versatility in what we're doing offensively. We can stay in the same personnel groupings and present different formations. I'm pleased with where both of those guys are in terms of learning that, and Pettaway is getting better at it as well."
Last season, the Mountaineers would occasionally throw to a running back, but it certainly was not a big part of the WVU offense in 2018. The four running backs combined for 29 receptions totaling 369 yards and three touchdowns. McKoy, a senior this year for WVU, led that group last season with 17 catches for 224 yards and one receiving touchdown. This year, McKoy said he expects to see the backs more involved in the passing game.
"I have seen more in this offense how they want the running back to be more incorporated in the passing game," McKoy said. "I think there is a lot more route running in this offense. I think it suits me - I like to catch the ball and I think I have good hands."
Sinkfield might even do more for the passing game than just being a running back who can catch. This season, he could see some time split out of the backfield or lined up as a slot receiver for the Mountaineers.
"Catching the ball is like second nature to me," Sinkfield said. "I think we all catch the ball pretty well. Some of those guys are more short-yardage backs, but my catching is definitely something that sets me apart."
That is not just one player who is confident in his abilities - others have taken notice of Sinkfield's pass-catching ability as well.
"I've seen a big improvement out of Alec Sinkfield," McKoy said. "This year he's kind of going to take a little bit of a different role. He might be playing a little more receiver this year, but you know that's just something that is going to help him. He's a real versatile guy -- he is real quick with his feet and has good hips and has the ball skills. He can catch the ball good, and those are all things that are going to help him get more touches and get on the field more."
Even the full-time receivers have taken notes on what Sinkfield can bring to the table in the passing game. Redshirt freshman Sam James had high praise for his teammate on Thursday.
"I love him at receiver," James said. "I can't lie, I love Sink at receiver because he's versatile. We can bring him out the backfield and line him up. I love to see him out there running routes."
And about that one-handed catch Sinkfield made earlier this week in practice?
"That was crazy," James said. "He reminds me of Alvin Kamara from the Saints - just the way he runs in the slot and stuff like that. That one-handed catch was crazy."