|Mario Alford caught eight passes for 215 yards and a touchdown in West Virginia's regular season finale against Iowa State. He also had four catches for 97 yards and a TD here against Texas.
|Pete Emerson photo
Pittsburgh Press sports editor Roy McHugh once wrote of Jerry West, “The Jerry Wests of this world do not come in pairs.”
Well, Mario Alford
has come to the realization that McGugh’s statement also likely applies to Tavon Austin, the former West Virginia slot receiver who was taken in the first round of last year’s NFL draft.
Alford was recruited out of Georgia Military Academy last February to come in and replace Austin in the slot and stretch defenses horizontally the way Austin did for the Mountaineer offense in 2012. But midway through last season the coaching staff determined that Alford was much more suited to play outside receiver where he could put his blinding speed to better use.
“I was looking at myself as another Tavon Austin because I played the slot and I felt like I could do the same thing he did. As time went on I just figured I can’t compare myself to him,” Alford explained. “That was what was put in my head, but I’m my own guy and I figured that out.”
It may have taken half a season to get Alford in the right place on the football field, but when he got there the rest of the Big 12 got a glimpse of his impressive playmaking ability.
Nothing better illustrates this than the difference in the numbers he put up over the last four games of 2013.
In his first eight games, Alford caught a paltry nine passes without a single touchdown reception. Then, when the decision was made to move him to the outside, he came alive. Alford caught three passes for 62 yards against TCU, had four receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown against Texas, caught three passes for 76 yards against Kansas and had an impressive eight-catch, 215-yard, one-TD performance against Iowa State.
Alford finished the year with 27 catches for 552 yards and two touchdowns and was the only Mountaineer player to post a 200-yard receiving game in 2013. Now he gives West Virginia a proven vertical passing threat heading into 2014.
“Man to man I like myself with anyone,” Alford said. “I just feel like nobody can stay in front of me.”
Alford admitted the transition from junior college to Division I football was a little more involved than he initially thought it would be, from the daily preparation to the attention to detail that is required of all D-I players. In junior college he could get by simply on natural ability.
“In junior college it was pretty simple,” he said. “The way we practice now we didn’t practice like that and have a lot of meetings like that. It was pretty laid back and simple.
“When I first got here it was kind of hard coming from JUCO to D-I in front of 60,000,” he added. “The playbook changed so I had to sit down, relax, and watch film and study my playbook. It got pretty simple as time progressed.”
Alford now has a full season under his belt and is part of a veteran receiver corps that also returns Kevin White
, Daikiel Shorts
, Jordan Thompson
and KJ Myers
. This group accounted for nine TD catches last year but the Mountaineer passing attack had only 16 touchdowns through the air for the season, which isn’t going to cut it the way Coach Dana Holgorsen wants plays offense. If West Virginia is going to get back to its winning ways, the receiver corps is going to have to produce much more in 2014, and Alford believes they can.
“I love it this year because we’ve got everyone coming back from last year; my first year it was a whole new group in the receiver corps,” Alford said. “We know the playbook like the back of our hands now.”
Just who will be throwing the football to them is still an unresolved matter. Last year’s starter Clint Trickett
is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and is not available for spring football practice, leaving the quarterbacking duties in the hands of senior Paul Millard
and junior college transfer Skyler Howard
Millard played in seven games last year and completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 1,122 yards and six touchdowns as a junior. Howard was a mid-semester signee from Riverside City (Calif.) College where he threw for more than 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns. Alford said he’s been impressed with what he’s seen so far from Howard, particularly his ability to use his feet and extend plays.
“We’ve got the new kid, Skyler, coming in and he’s pretty good,” said Alford. “He keeps his feet moving and he keeps the play alive. We’ve been working on keeping the plays alive.”
West Virginia wrapped up its first week of spring football practice last Thursday and has this week off for spring break before resuming football work on Tuesday, March 18.
The Mountaineers will have their annual Pro Day on Friday, March 21, and then will take their show on the road to Wheeling for an open practice at Wheeling Island Stadium on Saturday, March 22.
The Gold-Blue Spring Game will take place on Saturday, April 12 at 1 p.m.