Shawne Alston is one of several players in the mix for playing time at running back for WVU.
MORGANTOWN - Just for a moment, let's dispense with the coachspeak about every position being open and every player having to earn his spot, be it on a daily, a weekly or a yearly basis.There are some positions on West Virginia's football team where, while that might certainly be true in theory - after all, guys can't just show up and expect to play if they aren't doing the job - as a practical matter jobs are set in stone.It's especially true on offense.Paul Millard isn't suddenly going to unseat Big 12 preseason player of the year Geno Smith at quarterback.Ryan Nehlen isn't likely to usurp Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey as Smith's go-to receiver.Joe Madsen will begin the season snapping the ball. Mark it down. And it's a pretty safe bet that the four guys flanking him will come from the same pool of five or six who worked in the spring.Yes, there will be competition every day when practice begins Thursday, but those guys have proven themselves for two or three years and there's no reason to expect they won't do it again.And then there are the running backs. Go ahead, draw your names from a hat. You've got just as much chance of getting it right that way as any other.There are four who have played and distinguished themselves at one time or another - tailbacks Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston, along with fullback Ryan Clarke. Donovan Miles is in the mix with Clarke at fullback. There could be a freshman, Torry Clayton, step up just as Garrison and Buie did a year ago.
Who emerges will be interesting to watch between now and Sept. 1 when Marshall makes its last trip to Morgantown."That's why we practice,'' Dana Holgorsen said, injecting that bit of coachspeak at perhaps the one position - certainly the most visible one - on offense where it is true. "From week to week they've got to play well and they have to practice well.''"Everybody's healthy and everybody's ready to go. It's just a matter of lining up and [seeing who does the job]. A lot can happen in 21 days. You go [into camp] and 21 days, three weeks later you've got a better idea of what your team is.''Truth be told, perhaps no one will emerge from that group. It's happened before, just last fall in fact. Buie was the guy for a while, then Garrison for a while longer. Alston got cranked up when he was healthy. Clarke and the now-departed Matt Lindamood handled the heavy lifting of blocking, all dependent upon whom was healthy or playing well.
Among the returning tailbacks, all have their up sides and advantages.If you were to pick a favorite, maybe go with Alston. In fact, when pressed, that's who Holgorsen talks about.
"He's slimmed up a little bit,'' Holgorsen said when asked to name a player - any player - who might be a surprise this season. "He's going to be a fifth-year senior and he probably has the loudest voice in our locker room as far as being heard, being respected. He likes to refer to himself as the boss.''At 5-foot-11 and 235 pounds, Alston is also the most powerful of the ball carriers compared to the 5-9, 187-pound Buie and the 5-9, 166-pound Garrison."He's a big, strong guy we can give the ball to and he can get us some yards and some first down,'' Holgorsen said.Buie and Garrison are kind of in the same boat as smaller, shiftier backs, with Buie having the edge in power and Garrison is elusiveness. Buie slipped off the radar a bit after suffering some monstrous hits early in the season and being replaced by Garrison.But Garrison, of course, blew out a knee just before the Orange Bowl and his status is one huge question mark. He says he's healthy again and so do the trainers, but knee injuries can change a player."I don't know. Good question,'' Holgorsen said in regard to Garrison's health. "They say he's doing great, but there's a mental aspect that you've got to overcome as far as getting out there and cutting and getting hit that we're going to see.
"But I can only go from what [the trainers] are saying. They're saying he's doing well and he's ready to go, so I assume he's ready to go.''Holgorsen's offenses have always been known for throwing the football, but he's also produced more than a few 1,000-yard backs at his coaching stops. With three seemingly equal candidates for the job this year, don't expect one to churn out those types of numbers, but who knows? Maybe this is the year one emerges.Not that it matters."The good news is that we've got three good backs who have some experience from last year,'' Holgorsen said. "We've got Ryan Clarke and Donovan Miles, who give us bigger backs. We've got five guys with game experience and we'll add some freshmen to that as well. So we'll see what happens.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.