Breaking the Mold
When word came down that Dana Holgorsen was planning to start senior Shawne Alston this Saturday in the season opener against Marshall, one couldn’t help but think back to the impressive string of running backs West Virginia has put out on the field in the past.
Old-school guys such as Artie Owens and Robert Alexander in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, then guys like Adrian Murrell and Amos Zereoue in the 1990s, and then on into the new millennium with the likes of Avon Cobourne, Stevie Slaton and Noel Devine – all elusive, game-breaking runners who helped develop West Virginia’s great tradition of tailbacks.
So when you think of Shawne Alston, all 235-plus pounds of him, he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the starting running backs we’ve grown accustomed to seeing around here … that is with one exception, the one guy purposely left off of this list – Quincy Wilson.
If you recall, Wilson first teamed up with Cobourne in 2002 before having his breakout campaign in 2003, the Weirton native running for more than 1,300 yards and becoming one of West Virginia’s most reliable ball carriers. If you recall, Wilson, at 220 pounds, did most of his damage in the third and fourth quarters when the defensive guys were getting a little tired, their legs not quite as fresh, their arms not quite as strong and their minds not quite as alert.
Go back and look at most of Wilson’s big TD runs – the huge one down at Virginia Tech in 2002, his screen pass blowup of Miami’s Brandon Merriweather that forever sealed his place in Mountaineer lore, or his big second-half jaunts during West Virginia’s blowout victory against Pitt – all of them took place in the latter stages of the game when the opposition was tiring.
That is what Shawne Alston can become for West Virginia this year – a big, dependable, workhorse runner who can make his hay when the sun starts to set.
“We’ve had that run of those fast guys,” noted Wilson, now the team’s assistant director of football operations. “(Going North and South) was how I made my bread. The first two quarters pound at them and it paid off in the end.”
And that can happen in Holgorsen’s offense this year with Alston and Ryan Clarke, West Virginia’s other big boy back this fall. Spread the ball out, involve the explosive playmakers early, get the defenses tired and preoccupied, and then stick the ball in Alston’s belly and let him run over people.
“I’ve talked to those guys and they can be those guys who can really get after defenses and give us that running game that everyone seems to think we don’t have,” said Wilson. “I think we can really run the ball this year.”
Alston does, too.
“Even when people don’t think you are good you know you are good inside,” said Alston. “You’ve always got to have the confidence in yourself, and you just keep working and eventually that hard work pays off.”
It has for Alston, who wasn’t exactly chopped liver when he arrived at WVU back in 2009.
Alston had an impressive senior season playing at Virginia prep power Phoebus High, running for more than 2,200 yards and scoring 34 touchdowns, with nearly 1,000 of those yards and 10 touchdowns coming in the state playoffs.
But when Alston committed to West Virginia, it wasn’t clear what his role was going to be for the Mountaineers, considering the type of runners they were recruiting at the time. Even Alston wasn’t sure how well he fit in when former assistant coach Chris Beatty kept recruiting him.
“I thought about that a little bit when I was first talking to Coach Beatty about coming here,” Alston said. “He told me I had an opportunity to come in and compete right away for short yardage and goal line, and then when Noel leaves, I would have a chance to compete for the starting running back job.”
At the time, West Virginia was having a terrible time getting those tough yards between the tackles, and the late Bill Stewart thought recruiting some bigger, North-South-type runners would help. That’s the role Alston and Clarke were expected to fill when they first arrived.
“I came in and Ryan ended up beating me out for that job … but when people say ‘a typical back for a typical system’ I don’t really shy away from that because at the end of the day it’s competition,” Alston explained. “If you quit on that just because the system is different, then you’re probably saying that that guy is better than you. Any system that there is I think I can run.”
Never did Alston ever doubt his ability, even when his name began slipping farther down the RB depth chart.
“There were times when I felt like I should have played,” Alston admitted. “My freshman year, I thought I should have played, but after I got to my sophomore year, I realized maybe I wasn’t ready to play. Then my sophomore year, I thought I should have got a lot more playing time early on and then I started to get playing time later on.”
But in order for that to happen, Alston actually had to take matters into his own hands. When Devine was slowed by a foot injury at LSU three seasons ago, in 2010, it was Clarke who got the bulk of the carries instead of Alston. After the game, Alston went into Beatty’s office to find out what was up.
“I think after the LSU game my sophomore year I was feeling (bad) because Noel got hurt and they didn’t put me in,” Alston said. “I had a conversation with them, and then the next game I started to get more and more carries and everything went uphill from there.”
Well, not exactly. There were some delays during the climb. In the spring of his junior season, a neck injury kept Alston away from the field for most of spring practice, making it impossible for him to show new coach Dana Holgorsen what he could do.
And by the time the Marshall game rolled around last year, Alston wasn’t really in their plans, but as he became healthier and stronger, he gradually worked his way into the backfield rotation. By the end of the season he ended up running for 416 yards, and more importantly, produced a team-best 12 touchdowns to become WVU’s go-to guy in the red zone.
Now, Alston is planning on becoming West Virginia’s go-to runner anywhere on the field.
“It definitely feels good to showcase my talents,” said Alston of his season-opening starting role. “More importantly, it’s about helping the team, but also for yourself, when you are in a starting role, it’s just a good achievement overall.”
“I’m so proud of him,” Wilson added. “He’s hung in there and I think he’s going to have a great year.”
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