The Lead Dog
For years, it seemed like the three constants around here were death, taxes and 1,000-yard rushers.
Beginning with Amos Zereoue in the mid-1990s and continuing with Avon Cobourne, Quincy Wilson, Steve Slaton and then, Noel Devine, almost every year West Virginia football fans could count on having another highly productive ball carrier.
Some of them did their work between the tackles; others on the outside. And some were faster than others, but all of them were consistent and reliable enough to put up consistently good numbers each year.
And then in 2011, for the first time since really the early 1990s, the Mountaineers started the season without a legitimate workhorse runner to utilize in the backfield.
“Three true freshmen played last year and it was tough,” said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. “But those bumps and bruises we took are going to pay dividends this year.”
Touted true freshman Andrew Buie began last year as the starter against Marshall but he struggled to hold onto the football in early season games before giving way to fellow freshman Dustin Garrison.
Garrison had a huge, 291-yard rushing performance against Bowling Green and other strong efforts against Connecticut, Pitt and South Florida, but Garrison barely weighed 160 pounds and sometimes had a difficult time in short yardage situations moving the sticks between the tackles.
That’s where 236-pound Shawne Alston came in. The junior produced a team-best 12 rushing touchdowns and was West Virginia’s go-to guy in the red zone when the Mountaineers needed tough yards.
Then, when Garrison injured his left knee just days before the Orange Bowl, Buie stepped back into the picture and performed well as West Virginia’s change-of-pace back against Clemson, his head’s-up, twisting, spinning, rolling run down near the goal line in the first quarter serving as a big catalyst for West Virginia, along with Alston’s steady play.
Now, with Garrison back in the mix, Alston and Buie bigger, stronger and faster, Ryan Clarke and converted linebacker Donovan Miles butting heads at fullback and freshman Torry Clayton adding an extra element to the running back equation, the question becomes: Who is going to get the ball this year?
Gillespie said it could be any one of them.
“We have guys who can do a lot of different things,” he said last Saturday morning.
When Gillespie was at Oklahoma State, he was accustomed to having guys like Kendall Hunter and Joseph Randle being the featured guys, much the same way Slaton and Devine were utilized here just a few years ago. Randle is getting most of the reps now for the Cowboys because he can do it all – run, catch the ball out of the backfield and protect the passer.
Right now, Gillespie still sees all of those things getting done here by a variety of guys.
“Some guys can catch the ball, some guys are short yardage guys, some guys are better pass protectors, so I think we have got a good mixture of guys in our group,” he said. “”Adding Dustin back to the mix is definitely exciting to see for us as a coaching staff, and he is out there working hard.”
Gillespie said it is important to prepare his guys for anything and everything.
“I asked the guys the other day, ‘Who started the first game of the year?’ Andrew Buie shot his hand up,” Gillespie explained. “Then I said, ‘Who started the last game?’ Shawne Alston raised his hand. That is what the season can come to again. We don’t know who the starters are going to be, and who is going to finish the season, so all of those guys know that we are going to need every hat in that room in order for us to win that championship.”
Perhaps most importantly, according to Gillespie, is that each and every guy is out there pulling for each other and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
“They are a very unselfish group,” he said. “They don’t care who goes out first because they know that we have a role for each of those guys in that offense. Those guys are going to all play.”
But one guy is going to play more than the others, and right now, Gillespie is not sure who that is going to be.
“One guy has got to step up and be that lead dog and be the alpha male, and hopefully one of those guys embraces that role,” he said.
Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.
West Virginia University Mountaineers, WVU, Big 12 Conference, Shawne Alston, Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison
Gymnastics: Penn State Preview
Womens Basketball: Texas Tech Preview
United Bank Playbook: Oklahoma State
WVUsportsBuzz presented by U.S. Cellular
Wearing the Jersey: WBB Seniors