MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Dustin Garrison doesn't feel like a new man these days, and that's a good thing.After all, there was really nothing wrong with the old Dustin Garrison, right?He was the guy who as a true freshman in 2011 led West Virginia in rushing. He ran for 742 yards that season, which wasn't just the best performance among a group of five backs - Garrison, Andrew Buie, Shawn Alston, Vernard Roberts and Trey Johnson - who all began the season on fairly equal terms, it was more than the other four combined.He was the guy who against Bowling Green ran for 233 yards. In the first half. By game's end he had 291, a number surpassed by only one other college football player that season.The trouble is, he was also the guy who, about 10 minutes after the Mountaineers arrived in South Florida to begin practicing for an Orange Bowl date against Clemson, blew out his knee.That was 15 months ago, almost to the day. Since then, Garrison has seldom thought about playing on a new knee.He just yearns to be playing on the old one again."Just to be able to do the things I used to be able to do, that's what I've worked for,'' Garrison said. "I want to be able to go out there and not even think about the fact that my knee was hurt. I want to get to the point where it doesn't seem like anything ever happened.''
Finally, he's getting close.Through the first two weeks of West Virginia's spring practices, Garrison seldom has even thought about the knee. He no longer wears the knee brace that he absolutely hated. He doesn't walk off the field after practice and think about the hours he's going to have to spend in treatment because he doesn't spend hours there anymore.In other words it's completely different from the entire 2012 season, during which he tried to adopt that mindset but couldn't get his body to cooperate."That was the toughest part,'' Garrison said. "In my mind I was ready to get back out there, but my body still had a little catching up to do. That was tough for me.''It wasn't that Garrison didn't try. He sat out only the first two games of the season, then played 10 straight before sitting out the Pinstripe Bowl. But he never carried the ball more than nine times in a game and never gained more than the 54 yards he got against Kansas State midway through the season.
He also caught four passes for 30 yards that night against the Wildcats and it seemed, at least temporarily, as if he might be on the right track. But then he carried the ball just 20 more times the rest of the season.That still grates on him.
"The last maybe three games is when I started feeling a hundred percent,'' Garrison said. "But I still wasn't getting the amount of reps or playing time I wanted.''That's understandable, though. Consider that those last three games were against Oklahoma, when Tavon Austin became the feature back and ran for a school-record 344 yards; at Iowa State in frigid temperatures when the bullish Alston was the back of choice; and Kansas, when the Mountaineers did whatever they wanted offensively and Buie ran for 100 yards.The point is, by the end of the season West Virginia had already gotten used to playing without Garrison and had developed other options. It was just bad timing that Garrison found himself healthy and feeling good at precisely the point the team didn't really much need him.That, however, might have been the best thing that could have happened in Garrison's recovery - not physically, but mentally.Think of it this way: When Garrison was running for all those yards as a true freshman, it was as an underdog. He began the season third or fourth on the depth chart and had to compete like crazy just to get a chance to show what he could do. And after going through a season in which he was pushed into the background because of his knee and watched as others passed him by, he's really not in a much different position as he heads into 2013.He's going to have to prove himself all over again, a detail made even more significant by the fact that he's now playing for a new running backs coach, JuJuan Seider, to whom he has to prove himself all over again.
So 15 months after that knee injury, Garrison is running without a brace and not even thinking about the cuts that were once natural to him and trying to make them so again. He's added 10 pounds to the 175 at which he played last season.And instead of feeling like a new man, he's feeling like that old one again, the one who had to prove himself."I need to play like I did as a freshman, with a chip on my shoulder,'' Garrison said. "And with the way last season went, that shouldn't be hard. I can use that as motivation.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.