Running like a man possessed, Wendell Smallwood is asserting his presence in Eagles backfield

FBN,  Carson Wentz ,  Wendell Smallwood
May 30, 2017: Philadelphia Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood (28) takes the hand off from quarterback Carson Wentz (11) during OTA at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Christopher Szagola/CSM(Credit Image: © Chris Szagola/CSM via ZUMA Wire) (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

As the Eagles entered the offseason, the future of the backfield was unknown. Ryan Mathews sustained a damaging neck injury, while Darren Sproles wasn’t getting any younger. The team needed a direction…and even though rookie Wendell Smallwood flashed plenty during his first NFL season, the backfield simply needed revitalizing.

The Eagles did just that. Drafting SDSU star Donnel Pumphrey gave the Eagles a versatile option who can develop under Darren Sproles until “The little engine that could” decides to call it a day on what’s been an exceptional career. The explosiveness of both Sproles and Pumphrey opens up a realm of possibilities for the Eagles…but if that wasn’t enough, the team also went on to sign one of the best downhill runners of the last decade in LeGarrette Blount.

Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns with 18 in 2016 in what was a career year, with the 30-year old proving he still has plenty of rubber left to burn. A durable back who can drive the chains on third down and punch it up the gut willingly against opposing Defenses, Blount rushed for a career high 1,161 yards last year. Then, Corey Clement was signed as a UDFA and bought that tenacious downhill style to the table as well, leaving one running back out in the cold; Wendell Smallwood.

The West Virginia product was drafted in the fifth round of last year’s NFL Draft and would go on to record 312 yards and a touchdown on 77 carries, before suffering an injury that would cut his rookie season short. From a situational back, to a change-of-pace rusher, and even the leader of the pack at times, Smallwood experienced it all in 2016.

While his spot in the running back rotation was anything but cemented in terms of how regularly he would touch the ball, it’s something that has swung back in his favor. Entering Training Camp after Clement shined before the Vets arrived, it looked as though Smallwood would be fighting to prove to the coaching staff that he fits in the new backfield shape.

“This is the time of year where, I’m trying to get them all some reps, all some touches. Doug Pederson told the media just last week.” I think he’s going to have a role, obviously, on the football team. We’re just wanting to see all the guys right now.

I think as camp goes, you begin to see how we’re going to use certain players and scheme. We’re not scheming right now, so it’s just a matter of getting everybody some reps.”

A new chip on the shoulder has ensured Smallwood makes the most of all of his opportunities. Maybe it’s the presence of two new running backs in the locker room, or the added level of competition they bring. But one thing’s for sure, Smallwood is running like a man possessed as training camp continues.

It feels like every day now that we hear about a very different Wendell Smallwood. A rusher who meets his tackles head on, lowering his head and driving the ball forward. Surging through the trenches and attacking any defender in his way for extra yards. The elusive and quick-cutting style almost appears to have been replaced with an aggressive dog-like mentality that sees the WVU product want to just devour his competition.

LeGarrette Blount and Donnel Pumphrey have both missed a lot of time this week, meaning that those crucial reps have been handed on a plate to the 5’10 running back…but he’s made sure that every last crumb has been eaten.

“I think Wendell has above-average instincts. I think that just shows when it goes live.” Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich told reporters yesterday. “I think he’s been doing a good job pretty much every day. There’s always things we got to get better at and mistakes that we make. I think Wendell is making progress and we are very happy he’s on our team.”

Live tackling has given Wendell Smallwood a platform to showcase his new gritty mentality, and it’s something he’s been embracing. In a recent feature with Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com, the second-year running back opened up on his new mindset and how it’s impacted such a crucial training camp.

“It’s definitely been my mentality to get my shoulders low and keep my pad a little lower, and try to run through guys and not avoid contact. I think that’s one thing Duce wants me to do. He wants me to stop taking hits and start giving them out.”

It’s not just the media who have seen a different side to Smallwood this offseason. Frank Reich was extremely complimentary of his running back when talking to the media on Thursday:

“His instincts. His aggressiveness. How smart he is. I think he’s got very good physical skills. He’s fast. He’s quick. He’s a thrashing runner. He’s fearless.”

With Smallwood now embracing contact, it’s almost as if RB coach Duce Staley has taken the leash off. Smallwood is running riot in Training Camp and is doing more than just making an impression. If he can show the Eagles that he possesses that same skill-set as Blount as well as being able to bring the same level of explosiveness he flashed in games like the win over the Steelers, then the future is becoming much brighter for Smallwood.

One year behind one of the most powerful downhill rushers of the last ten years is only going to help the sophomore rusher grow if he can earn a spot sitting behind him. When Blount’s contract expires at the end of the year, the Eagles aren’t going to be left in a position of running back need yet again should Smallwood continue to flash this physical style. This may be the catalyst needed to propel Smallwood to a position where he could step up to the plate as the workhorse back, with Pumphrey behind him one day replacing Sproles.

Pre-season is going to be incredibly fun to watch, but Training Camp has been dominated by corners, wideouts and quarterbacks. Behind the big narratives however lies a big heart and a ruthless mentality buried in the heart of the backfield. Smallwood won’t be flying under-the-radar for very long if he continues to flash such a dominant style of running. His assertion in the backfield rotation is being felt across the locker room…and the one they call “Small World” is developing the ceiling of a Small Universe.

 

 

Mandatory Photo Credit: Chris Szagola/Cal Sport Media via AP Images

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