|Then-freshman Dustin Garrison celebrates a touchdown against second-ranked LSU at Milan Puskar Stadium in 2011.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
It seems like an eternity since Dustin Garrison
blew out his left knee in practice down in South Florida just days before West Virginia’s 70-33 victory over Clemson in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl.
Garrison was the Mountaineers’ leading ground gainer as a freshman in 2011 with 742 yards and six touchdowns, including a memorable 291-yard performance in a blowout victory over Bowling Green.
The following year, in 2012, Garrison managed only 207 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns. Then last season, he appeared in three games, gaining a paltry 19 yards before shutting it down and taking a medical redshirt because of a nagging hamstring injury.
“I wasn’t feeling right,” admitted Garrison. “Coach (Dana) Holgorsen met up with me and offered me the medical redshirt and I thought it was a good idea. We had plenty of backs at the time and it was good for me to take that medical redshirt, not only football-wise, but school-wise, too.”
During Saturday’s practice in Charleston we got a glimpse of the Dustin Garrison
of old, the guy who can slip tacklers with ease or run over them when he needs to. Garrison scored a pair of touchdowns and also had the hit of the scrimmage when he lit up senior linebacker Brandon Golson
during Oklahoma drills, drawing oohs and aahs from the estimated 6,000 in the stands at Laidley Field.
“Overall, I thought I did a good job,” said Garrison.
Garrison, at 180 pounds, is clearly the smallest guy in a very crowded running back room that includes 224-pound Dreamius Smith
, 218-pound Pitt transfer Rushel Shell
, 202-pound Wendell Smallwood
and 188-pound Andrew Buie
. This summer, another seat will need to be added when 220-plus pounder Donte Thomas-Williams from North Carolina arrives.
“There is a lot of size differences between the backs, but I don’t let that get to me,” said Garrison. “Blocking-wise I think I’m just as good as Dreamius and some of the bigger backs. Running-wise, I’m just as fast as Wendell and the other backs. Overall, we all have our certain things that helps us play better, but with me, I don’t let my size, my speed or anything like that dictate how I play as a running back.”
West Virginia’s smallest runner was clearly the most physical one during Saturday’s scrimmage, and also beforehand when he sent the 230-pound Golson airborne.
“Those linebackers talk a lot of smack and me being one of the smaller guys, they don’t want to go against me,” said Garrison. “Once I got in he was like, ‘Nah, you’ve got to get out.’ ‘I’m not getting out.’ He’s like, ‘I want (256-pound) Cody Clay
.’ I’m like, ‘No, you’ve got me.’ I think he thought I was going to be scared of him, but it’s not going to happen.”
Garrison’s big hit set the tone for Saturday’s practice, one the coaches were visibly pleased with afterward because of the way their guys flew around and how they responded to the hyped-up atmosphere provided by a larger-than-expected Charleston crowd.
“You get excited when they run over somebody or make somebody miss,” said running backs coach JaJuan Seider. “I tell them all the time, ‘I don’t need to pat you on the back when you run 15 yards when there is nothing but air. What about third and 1 when we need to get it?’ Those are the types of runs we want to get excited about.”
Seider has been harping on his running backs to be more physical, finish behind their pads and deliver a blow in order to get those tough yards late in games that can flip Ls into Ws.
“Last year was big year of what-ifs,” said Seider. “We had the lead in six games that we didn’t finish. Well, enough of the what-ifs. Quit making excuses and go play. As bad as that season was, if we finish in the fourth quarter we could have been 10-2, and maybe Big 12 champs.”
Seider’s running backs are clearly getting the message.
Smallwood has consistently been praised for his elusiveness, ball skills and his ability to hit the home-run play. The sophomore might be West Virginia’s most well rounded running back right now.
“That kid makes plays,” says offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson.
Smith and Shell have shown signs, too, as have Buie and Garrison. There might not be a Stevie Slaton, Amos Zereoue or Adrian Murrell in this group right now, but collectively, it's probably the deepest array of top-shelf talent West Virginia has had at the running back position since the late 1960s when the Mountaineers had Jim Braxton, Bob Gresham, Eddie Williams and Pete Wood all here at the same time. That group was so good that offensive coordinator Bobby Bowden changed from a passing offense to the wishbone in a year's time.
Of course, that’s not going to happen with Holgorsen, but that's not to say he won't come up with some clever ways of getting his best playmakers the football.
“The baseline is competition,” said Dawson. “The more competition you have the better it’s going to make everybody.
“Running backs get nicked up,” the third-year offensive coordinator added. “I don’t know if anybody has ever gone through a season and said, ‘Man, we just have too many running backs that year.’ It happens a lot the other way.”
“I’m greedy,” said Seider. “Everybody says too many is a big problem. No it’s not. Not having any is a problem.”
Garrison admits he sometimes looks around in awe at the talent sitting next to him in the running back room.
“We all brag about each other,” said Garrison. “If any one of us have a great run we brag about it. It’s not like we’re all individuals. We’re a group of great backs and we all build off each other.”
Now, Garrison plans on building off of Saturday’s outstanding performance in Charleston.
“I think my mind is where it needs to be,” he said. “I carry this attitude with me every time I run the ball and I have so much to prove, not only to these coaches, but also to myself. All it comes down to is trying to be the best back on the field.”
Whoever that guy ends up being, he’s going to be pretty darn good, that’s for sure.