MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — During Saturday’s scrimmage at Milan Puskar Stadium, a running back found his way to the endzone twice, but it wasn’t the guy that likely comes to mind first.
It was sophomore Tony Mathis.
Senior Leddie Brown is seeing limited reps in contact situations during the spring by design, providing an opportunity for the guys behind him, Mathis and fellow sophomore A’Varius Sparrow, to show they can execute in a backup role.
“Tony Mathis had a productive day and it’s been that way all week,” head coach Neal Brown said after the scrimmage. “He is showing improvement and this football team needs him to keep coming.”
While Mathis did have a pair of scores, his first few runs had the opposite outcome.
“I almost anticipated that happening, you know. Real eager, first opportunity to go out there in a live situation for him where it really matters,” running backs coach Chad Scott said. “He didn’t look good on the first run. He had an opportunity to hit a big one and he did something that was freshman-like, and it didn’t happen. Then there was a short yard situation and he just fell down in the backfield.”
Mathis may have lost his footing on that play, but it seems that was all he needed to get his feet back underneath him, literally and figuratively.
“After getting those jitters out, he did some stuff that was really great to see,” Scott said. “I’ve seen glimpses of it, but to see him do it repeatedly, play after play, was really good.”
That showing in the scrimmage earned Mathis quite a few mentions from Coach Brown in his press conference, but he’s going to need to continue to improve if he wants to be the next man up behind WVU’s 1,000-yard rusher.
“The way we are attacking this is we have two guys that are having 15 opportunities in the spring in Tony Mathis and A’Varius Sparrow. They are competing,” Brown said. “I think you need to have at least three running backs prepared to play. We were fortunate last year with Leddie but I think we need help running the football, as far as he can’t be the only guy carrying the load, and we have to be more productive out of that second running back spot.”
Last season, that role was held by Alec Sinkfield, who transferred out of the program after the Liberty Bowl. He finished with 78 carries for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Mathis did see action in six games, tallying 55 yards and one score on 18 touches.
Now, of course, there is no way to have two Leddie Browns in the backfield, but the starter says Mathis’ style does come pretty close.
“Tony is more like me when it comes to a running back standpoint — he’s really explosive, really strong, and can make those tough runs when the tough runs are needed. He’s coming along real well as we get further into the spring,” Leddie Brown said of Mathis.
Coach Scott said one of the goals for his room is being successful in different run schemes. He wants his backs, no matter their number on the depth chart, to be more versatile, and that’s what he is already seeing from Mathis.
“If you would ask anyone on the staff before now what kind of back Tony Mathis was, it would be he is a downhill, inside zone guy,” Scott said. “But if you watch him run the outside zone now, he looks almost as natural as Leddie running the ball in terms of his fluidity changing direction.”
Leddie already has his sights set on another 1,000-yard season, but can Mathis and Sparrow rise to the occasion to accomplish that goal of a three-headed monster in 2021?
“I do feel confident I can get there. Absolutely,” Scott said. “The reason why I feel so confident is because those guys want to get there. Their eagerness to learn is something that is great, so that’s why I feel even more confident.”