MORGANTOWN - It was only a few weeks ago that Dana Holgorsen was talking about Shawne Alston in rather measured terms.He was discussing West Virginia's corps of running backs, among whom Alston is often an afterthought. Beside Andrew Buie, who made a splash right from the get-go while earning the early start as a true freshman, and Dustin Garrison, who had the nation's most productive rushing game last season, Alston sometimes seems, well, the if-all-else-fails option.Yes, Alston has had his moments, not the least of which was his overpowering game in the snow at Rutgers last season. He was also the starter in the Orange Bowl and carried 20 times for 77 yards and two touchdowns after Garrison blew out a knee a week before the game.But as a go-to guy in the backfield? Well, no.
"I'm not sure how big a role he can handle,'' Holgorsen said specifically of the 5-foot-11, 225-pound junior-to-be. "Shawne is a different kind of back [than the smaller Buie and Garrison]. We certainly want to get as much out of him this year as we did the end of last year when he had 20 carries against Clemson."But our goal is to have a bunch of running backs that can give a lot of reps. Shawne plays hard and is physical, but you can't go like he does on every run. You just can't.OK, now fast-forward to Sunday night, when for the first time this spring Holgorsen put the Mountaineers through a full-scale scrimmage. The goal of having "a bunch of running backs that can give a lot of reps'' is still there. Buie hasn't disappointed. Garrison is sidelined until fall camp, but he figures heavily into the mix, too.But Alston as merely a situational back? Well, that might be changing."Yeah,'' Holgorsen said when asked the question rather point-blank. "He's hard to tackle.''Apparently, Alston's performance in Sunday night's scrimmage was so impressive that Holgorsen now sees the possibility of a 220-pound back not just in short-yardage and goal-line situations - or in a raging snowstorm, as was the case when he ran for 110 yards at Rutgers - but as a matter of routine. He's not likely to simply push Buie and Garrison to the side, but joining them as a true three-headed tailback monster is a real possibility.That's fine with Alston, who never doubted that he could be more than Mike Alstott revisited."Oh, definitely I can be an every-down back,'' he said. "And I would like the opportunity to prove it.''Well, if Sunday was any indication, he's going to get it."Shawne Alston looked as good as I've ever seen him,'' Holgorsen said. "He's hard to tackle.''Of course, it's hard to blame Holgorsen for not paying much attention to Alston in the past. Remember, Holgorsen arrived at just about the time Alston was injuring his neck in an off-season car accident roughly 15 months ago. It was the middle of last season before he was really healthy enough to contribute.
"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,'' Holgorsen said. "As the season went on he became more healthy. He looks good.''As for durability, well, that's something Alston still has to prove."At times I get banged up because of my running style. I play physical,'' Alston said. "It's just a matter of going to treatment and doing whatever you can to prevent those injuries.''It's not as if Alston likely will ever put Buie and Garrison out of jobs, of course. Last year was a perfect illustration of what can happen to a running back corps. At the beginning of the season five tailbacks were competing for playing time and all had their moments. But by the end of the season Buie had missed time injured, Vernard Roberts and Trey Johnson left the team, Garrison blew out that knee in Miami and Alston wasn't even healthy enough to dress until a few games into the season."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,'' Holgorsen said. "It happened in the bowl game, too. 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."Those guys complement each other well, but if those were the only two we had going into a 12-game season, we would be in trouble.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.