West Virginia’s offense has a vertical threat in Stedman Bailey
, it has a horizontal threat in Tavon Austin
, and now, it is looking to complete the circle – an every-down running back that can force defenses to stick close to the line of scrimmage and remain honest.
Dana Holgorsen had it during his one season coordinating Oklahoma State’s offense in Kendall Hunter, who gained more than 1,500 yards and scored 16 touchdowns for the Cowboys in 2010. And he almost had it last year with true freshman Dustin Garrison
, who ran for 742 yards and scored six touchdowns – 291 of those yards coming in one game against Bowling Green.
Whether it’s Garrison, sidelined for the spring following successful knee surgery (he will not be available until later this summer), senior Shawne Alston
, who has overcome his own health issues to have an outstanding spring, sophomore Andrew Buie
, or one of the two high school running backs West Virginia signed in February, developing a go-to runner to force defenses to respect the line of scrimmage has to be near the top of Holgorsen’s to-do list heading into the fall.
If you step back into time and look at some of West Virginia’s best offenses – during the Bobby Bowden years in the early 1970s with Bernie Galiffa, Danny Buggs, Marshall Mills, and running back Kerry Marbury, during the late 1980s with Major Harris, Reggie Rembert, Calvin Phillips, Grantis Bell, and running backs A.B. Brown and Undra Johnson under Don Nehlen, and more recently, with Pat White, Darius Reynaud and running backs Stevie Slaton and Owen Schmitt under Rich Rodriguez – the one common theme with all of those was an ability to force teams to defend the entire football field.
Dana Holgorsen’s offense was close to having the whole football field covered last year – which makes it difficult to imagine what kind of numbers Holgorsen could have put up if they did. Bailey and Austin both accumulated more than 1,000 yards receiving and quarterback Geno Smith
passed for a school-record 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Garrison, Alston and Buie combined to rush for more than 1,300 yards and tally 19 touchdowns last year, but there were games when the team’s inability to run the football bogged down the Mountaineer offense. West Virginia managed just 42 yards rushing in the opener against Marshall, had 92 in a road win at Maryland, 70 against LSU, 72 versus Connecticut, 70 against Syracuse and a season-low 32 at Cincinnati.
In fact, the bulk of West Virginia’s rushing yards last season came in just three games – Bowling Green (360), Rutgers (210) and Clemson (182) - and not coincidentally, those were three of the Mountaineers’ most effective offensive performances of the year.
After yesterday’s first scrimmage, Holgorsen made it a point to compliment the hard running of Alston, whose 12 rushing touchdowns last year helped him finish second in the Big East in scoring.
looked as good as I’ve ever seen him,” said Holgorsen. “He is hard to tackle. Last spring, we didn’t get anything out of him; camp, we didn’t get anything out of him and the first five games of the year we didn’t get anything out of him. As the season went on he became (healthier).
“He looks good.”
In fact, Alston has played so well that Holgorsen hinted on Sunday that the senior could become more than just a red zone and short yardage specialist the way he was utilized last year.
“Shawne was pretty much our every-down back in the bowl game, spelled by Buie, which is really what we are doing out there right now,” said Holgorsen. “Those guys compliment each other well, but if these were the only two we had going into a 12-game season, we would be in trouble.”
That is because Holgorsen asks so much of his running backs, not only with the ball in their hands, but also in the passing game as well.
“None of them can be an every-down guy because we ask our backs to do so much, and we play so many backs from a one-back set to a two-back set to a three-back set to where they are all going to take a bunch of snaps,” he said.
Alston and senior Ryan Clarke
give West Virginia size and physicality the Mountaineers need between the tackles while Garrison and Buie are capable of proving more of a burst in the open field to hit the big play. With Garrison still rehabbing his knee, Buie has been asked to shoulder most of that responsibility this spring.
“He is a tough kid,” said Holgorsen of Buie. “He runs hard, he plays hard, he blocks hard and he takes hits because he plays so hard. For him to be able to do it for nine straight days has impressed me. I am sure Dustin is watching on the sidelines with some anxiety seeing him get a whole bunch of reps, and Shawne as well.
“But we found out last year, you can’t go into a season with one running back. You need to have a bunch of them and I am sure Dustin is ready to get to August when he can go out and get some reps as well.”
Just how much West Virginia’s running backs develop over the course of the next five or six months could determine how effective the Mountaineers will be this fall moving the football in the Big 12 Conference, considered one of the most wide-open offensive leagues in the country.