MORGANTOWN - Beginning with spring practices and continuing through the entirety of the August preseason, Robert Gillespie never wavered in either his praise of or belief in Shawne Alston.He was proving himself not only to be far better than he'd ever been before, but clearly the best of West Virginia's running backs.So when Alston began his senior season with a rather remarkable - not to mention career high - 123-yard rushing day in the Mountaineers' 69-34 dismantling of Marshall, it shouldn't have come as that much of a surprise to anyone who had listened to and believed Gillespie, the team's second-year running backs coach.Still, seeing Alston run through defenders was an eye opener.
Well, at least it was to most everyone besides Gillespie."It didn't,'' Gillespie said when asked if even he was surprised by Alston's performance. "I mean, I'm not a guy who is going to sit here and try to surprise you guys. I was always honest and said I believed that he was a different guy."Well, perhaps not different, but finally healthy. That's something Alston had not been since his freshman season. And back then his chances to show what he could do were rather limited given that the Mountaineers had a guy named Noel Devine running for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns and Ryan Clarke filling the short-yardage role and scoring eight times. Alston played in five games and carried the ball just six times, effectively wasting what could have been a redshirt year that would now make him a junior, not a senior.After that, a knee injury slowed his preparation for his sophomore season and a neck injury suffered in a car accident set him back before last year.Then again, by the end of the season Alston was healthy and began showing flashes. He had that 110-yard performance in a snowstorm at Rutgers, then started the Orange Bowl when Dustin Garrison was injured and gained 77 yards."He got better as the year went on and he was never really healthy,'' Gillespie said. "He finally became a healthy guy and his confidence grew and he practiced that way. He practiced hard; he finishes his runs and competes. You're going to play the way you practice and he's a prime example of that.''
The 5-foot-11, 236-pound Alston was simply astonishing right from the start against Marshall. He gained 10 yards on his first carry, ran over defenders for nine yards on his second, had a 14-yard gain on a first-and-15 play for his fourth carry and still in the first quarter ran a power play behind Clarke for 12 yards. He had touchdowns of 3 and 21 yards, and probably his only bad play was a fumble at the end of a 7-yard run near the end of the first half. But Jordan Thompson recovered it for WVU, so no damage was done.Oh, and he came out of the game the same way he went in - healthy."You always worry about that,'' Gillespie said. "I worry about it, sure, but the kids don't. ... But he came out of the game healthy. A lot of that is because of the way we practice. We practice so physical that the games are a little bit easy right now.''The performance of both Alston and Andrew Buie (80 yards rushing, plus four pass receptions for 31 yards), though, was not enough to allay concerns about one area of West Virginia's running game - depth. It would be easy to look at the first-game performance (331 rushing yards, the second-most in the past four years for WVU) and assume that it might allow Gillespie and the coaches to feel better about perhaps redshirting Garrison. Last year's leading rusher didn't play against Marshall and there remains the possibility he might be held out this season.Gillespie said no, the first-game performance of Alston and Buie will have no effect on any decision regarding Garrison, who may or may not play when the Mountaineers face James Madison Saturday in Landover, Md.
"We're still going to let him rest as long as he needs to rest,'' Gillespie said. "Obviously, the off week will help and as soon as he's ready to go, we're going to put him out there and put him in some plays and see what he can do."We want Dustin back. He brings a lot of energy to the group. And the more we have, the better we are.''Right now, though, West Virginia has just two running backs. Freshman D'Vontis Arnold did not play, but don't count him out. And Clarke, the fullback who scored 16 touchdowns as a freshman and sophomore but did not carry the ball as a junior, could soon rejoin the mix."Ryan Clarke is a guy I would want to get touches before D'Vontis,'' said Gillespie, who wanted Clarke to carry the ball against Marshall but the opportunity just didn't present itself. "He's a guy I think we'll probably have to lean on at some time during the year. 'Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.