MORGANTOWN - It seems that where West Virginia's running back depth is concerned, the past year has been feast or famine.The height of the feast was probably the beginning of 2011's third game, at Maryland. That was when Shawne Alston made his season debut after recovering from months of rehab following a car crash, Andrew Buie was the starter, backed up by healthy Vance Roberts, Dustin Garrison and Trey Johnson. Matt Lindamood had some aches, but Ryan Clarke and Ricky Kovatch were more-than-capable blocking backs.By the time the Orange Bowl kicked off a little less than four months later, it was closer to famine. Alston and Buie were the only healthy ball carriers and Buie was out of practice, having been reduced to a handful of carries after the emergence of Garrison. But Garrison was gone to a knee injury and Roberts and Johnson had left the team. Only the fullbacks were healthy, but weren't being used much.Now, fast forward to spring practice. There are but two healthy running backs, Alston and Buie. Lindamood and Kovatch are gone, leaving Clarke as the only fullback. Things are so shallow there that Donovan Miles has been moved over from linebacker to back up Clarke.Yet running backs coach Robert Gillespie isn't complaining, in part because there's no urgency without a game to be played for 41/2 months, and in part because those who remain are doing the best they can do."The guys have done a really good job with the lack of depth right now,'' Gillespie said. "It's been really good for some of those young guys to get some reps.''The young guys Gillespie speaks of, though, are basically walk-ons who aren't likely to figure in the team's plans when September rolls around. In fact, on the depth chart the team released last week, only Alston and Buie were listed as active running backs and Clarke and Miles as fullbacks.And even they've been slowed after having to carry so much of the load.
"Shawne has been a guy who has done well because he's fought through. He's a little sore and has been banged up, but he's done a good job of fighting through and coming to practice every day,'' Gillespie said. "Buie is a little dinged up and has a sore neck, but the next guy has to step up and be ready to play. It's been good so far.''With only two more practices remaining before Saturday's spring-ending Gold-Blue scrimmage, the workload on both Alston and Buie might be reduced.Again, with only two healthy tailbacks - Garrison is expected to return for fall camp - why beat up the ones who are relatively healthy?Fullback is another matter. Not only is Clarke the only experienced player at the position, he's been hurt and may not play at all in the Gold-Blue game."Unfortunately, he got his ankle hurt last week, but I think we saw enough of what he can do,'' Gillespie said. "He definitely got better this spring. Hopefully, he can get better and participate in the spring game, but if not he definitely made strides and will continue to get better. His fundamentals are very good and he's had a phenomenal spring so far.''With Clarke sidelined, Miles has gotten a chance at some practical experience at his new position. He wasn't likely to play much as a linebacker after four years of trying, but now he's on a very short list of fullbacks."Donovan has done a really good job. He's a very unselfish player and an older guy,'' Gillespie said. "He just wanted to get on the field. It was something that coach [Dana] Holgorsen and the defensive guys tried to figure out - who was a bigger body that they could stand to lose, and right now we have some younger guys at linebacker. Donovan was really willing to come over.
"He's done a really good job, just because he wants to play football. He wants to get on the field and it matters to him. He's done a really good job. I'm glad to have him.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.