IN ONE BREATH, Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley calls Wendell Smallwood his most improved pupil.

"I'm very happy with Wendell this spring," Staley said. "Very happy. He's come a long way."

In another breath, he fails to even mention Smallwood when he's running down the names of his top backs.

"When you look at what we have in the backfield as far as (fourth-round rookie Donnel) Pumphrey and (Darren) Sproles and LeGarrette (Blount) and those guys, I think we have a great mixture of speed and power, which is what you want."

Where the second-year back out of West Virginia fits in the Eagles' 2017 backfield plans will be determined this summer in training camp and the preseason.

At 5-10 and 208 pounds, he isn't a short-yardage bulldozer like the 250-pound Blount, and he doesn't have the make-you-miss ability of those elusive Lilliputians, Sproles (5-6, 190) and Pumphrey (5-8, 176). But he has a blend of speed, power and explosiveness that none of the other Eagles' running backs, with the possible exception of undrafted rookie Corey Clement, has.

Selected by the Eagles in the fifth round of last year's draft, Smallwood rushed for 312 yards on 77 carries as a rookie. He had only six receptions, four of them in the same game (a 26-15 Week 11 loss to Seattle).

His two best rushing performances came in the Eagles' two most impressive wins - a 34-3 Week 3 victory over the Steelers and a 24-10 Week 10 win over the NFC-champion Falcons.

Smallwood rushed for 79 yards on 17 carries against the Steelers, and had 70 yards on 13 carries against the Falcons. But he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in the other 11 games he played.

Smallwood's first NFL season will be remembered more for his injuries than his rushing yards. He suffered a quadriceps injury a week into training camp and sat out the next three weeks, including the Eagles' first two preseason games.

He returned for the third preseason game against Indianapolis, and promptly suffered a concussion on his second carry that sidelined him for the remainder of the preseason.

Then, in a Week 14 loss to the Redskins, he suffered an MCL knee sprain and missed the Eagles' final three games.

"I know what's expected of me this year and I know what I need to do," Smallwood said.

He appears to have made a complete recovery from the knee injury. While some other Eagles players who were coming off injuries have been restricted by the training staff this spring, Smallwood has been allowed to do everything.

"I stayed here (at the Eagles' training facility) a week and a half after the last game against the Cowboys," Smallwood said. "I didn't run the whole time I was hurt. But after the Dallas game, I finally ran and the knee felt great.

"It's felt great ever since. I forget that I even hurt it a lot of the time. Doctors ask me about it, other people ask me about it, (and) I forget that I had a knee (injury)."

Smallwood said he has worked hard this spring to improve every aspect of his game, from his pass-blocking to his receiving skills to his running.

"I'm more decisive," he said. "That's the major jump I've made this year. If I do something wrong, at least I'm doing it full speed.

"I've been doing it all. There's nothing I don't practice. I run the (pass) routes. I run the ball. I don't think there's anything I can't do."

Smallwood played only 164 offensive snaps last season, which was 347 fewer than the 34-year-old Sproles. His struggles as a pass-blocker were one of the reasons he didn't get on the field more.

Smallwood, like most college running backs, wasn't asked to do much blocking at West Virginia. It's not a skill learned overnight.

"(My blocking is) much better," he said. "I thought I picked up toward the end of the season. Before that, I was getting there late. But this year, I'm seeing it faster and I'm picking it up faster. And my technique has gotten better, and I've gotten stronger."

Staley agreed.

"You can see he's more comfortable in the passing game, more comfortable with the protections, more comfortable in the run game," the Eagles assistant coach said.

Smallwood said he's also focusing more on the mental aspect of the game than he did as a rookie. He acknowledged he didn't spend a lot of time in the film room last year. That has changed.

"That's going to be the most important thing for me this season," he said.

Smallwood said he and the rest of the running backs have a better feel for their offensive line than they did a year ago, and he thinks that will help the overall production of the running game.

"We know guys and where they're going to be," he said. "The running-back room has been studying our blocks this offseason. What they doing and how they're it. We've been on the same page for the most part.

"Just knowing what's going on, knowing how we're doing things, I'm able to coach all the guys up and tell the new guys stuff that can help them.

"With Blount listening to me all the time, it's good for me. It boosts my confidence helping him get comfortable with the offense. At the end of the day, it's helping making us both better."

Smallwood insists he's excited by the additions of Blount and Pumphrey.

"It adds so much diversity to our offense," he said. "Our (running-back) room is going to be the best room on the field, no matter who we're playing against. The competition in that room and our will to get better and make this team lean on us and be those dogs of the offense is definitely going to propel this team."

Last June, after the Eagles finished their last spring minicamp and headed off for a month of R&R before the start of training camp, Smallwood took a week off. Did a little jogging, but that was about it. Took him the rest of the summer down time to get back to where he was. And then he got hurt.

This year, he won't be taking any time off.

"This go-round, I'm not taking any days off," he said. "I know what I'm going into. I know what it takes."

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@Pdomo Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog