MORGANTOWN - Dustin Garrison is among those who believe that everything happens for a reason.The reason for what happened to him in late December? Well, he hasn't quite nailed that down, but it's coming."All I know is that I've been working out as hard as I can this spring and summer,'' Garrison said Tuesday. "I've gained weight, I've gotten stronger and I feel like when it's over I'll be a lot better than I was last year.''If it required the sort of traumatic knee injury that Garrison suffered just prior to West Virginia's Orange Bowl rout of Clemson in order for him to truly focus and commit himself to excellence, well, you wouldn't have known it based on his freshman season for the Mountaineers.This is a guy who worked his way through a crowded stable of running backs to emerge as a star. He was WVU's leading rusher as a true freshman with 742 yards, including a 291-yard performance against Bowling Green in October that stood as the top performance by a running back in the country.A need to be more focused and to work harder? Whodathunkit?Yet here he is, 51/2 months later, not only putting in the effort but making remarkable progress as well. An injury - an ACL tear and an MCL sprain in his knee suffered during practice for the Orange Bowl - that sometimes requires a nine- to 12-month rehabilitation period is well on its way to being overcome in six or seven months. Not that he can afford to rush it or become overconfident, but already Garrison offers that the knee itself is not as concerning to him as regaining the strength lost to forced inactivity."My knee is fine,'' Garrison said. "I just need to build up my quad strength. It looks like I'll be back sometime next month.''
With West Virginia's players in full summer workout mode with the start of summer classes, Garrison already looks pretty much like everyone else. He runs and lifts weights right up until it's time to go outside and work in seven-on-seven drills.That's still several weeks in his future. It's one thing to run straight ahead or lift, quite another to begin attempting the sort of cuts required of a running back.Not that he hasn't snuck in a few modest attempts, mind you. He'll just be walking around his house or on his way to class and just for kicks he'll make a sharp turn or plant his foot and turn."I've done that a couple of times,'' Garrison said. "[Trainer] Dave [Kerns] and those guys probably don't want me to, but I'll walk around the house and take a couple of plants here and there. It seems stable enough.''
If Garrison seems resigned to his current plight and even in a way happy to be forced to focus harder on the task of getting into shape, it wasn't always that way. The first few weeks after he blew out his knee he didn't want to do anything. His roommates would see him sulking and shake him out of it, but it was a constant battle.And he would replay that day in practice in Miami. Again and again."Too many times,'' he said. "It was just a freak accident. I took one step and then another and it was all gone. I was talking to a friend back home who did the same thing. You can do the same move again and again, but it just takes that one time to mess it all up.
"I had teammates from high school who had the same injury and they all tell me that you never know what you have until it's gone. I'd just say, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever.' But when it happens to you, you start to understand what they mean. You have to take advantage of what you have.''Garrison is doing everything he can to do just that. He spent time on crutches, more time walking gingerly and missed all of spring practice. But after resigning himself to his situation and resolving to make the best of it, he used his down time for the only thing he could, watching tapes of himself a year ago and seeing what he could do better."Actually, I think I'll be a lot better,'' Garrison said. "I'm still working on the strength, but mentally I've been watching film and looking at the areas I need to critique myself.''When fall camp begins in early August, Garrison hopes to be right back where he was physically last season - and then some. But even if he's stronger and smarter, he doesn't want any sympathy or favors from coach Dana Holgorsen or running backs coach Robert Gillespie. He will still be in at least a three-way battle for playing time in the backfield with Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston and hopes when the time comes to prove himself he is forced to do just that.From the depths of the depth chart."Honestly, I see myself in the back,'' Garrison said. "I don't want Holgorsen or Gillespie to put me on top. I want to earn my way back up top. I know Buie and Shawne and even the new guys have a lot to prove and so do I. I see myself at the back of the depth chart and I want to earn my way back up.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.