MORGANTOWN — When Tavon Austin walked across the Radio City Music Hall stage last April and shook hands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the search officially began to find a replacement in the West Virginia offense.
And when Mario Alford finally stepped on campus late in July, it seemed like the Mountaineers found their man.
Austin was the slick and speedy inside receiver, a game-changer who made big plays on offense in the slot and from the backfield that defied his size at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds.
Alford measured just an inch smaller, but had the moves and the speed and he’d made the most of them in two seasons at Georgia Military College. Alford was aware of the comparison, if not reluctant to accept it.
“Tavon is his own player, and I’m my own player,” he said. “He’s pretty good, but I can make the fans happy, too.”
Alford caught just 10 passes in two junior college seasons, but the former all-state quarterback in Georgia was quite accomplished as a running back, amassing 763 yards and 10 touchdowns on 85 carries.
“I got a little time as a slot receiver, running bubble routes and screen routes and stuff like that,” Alford said. “They used me pretty good.”
Just as Austin transitioned from running back at his Baltimore high school to receiver in college, Alford was to do the same at WVU. He started out as an inside receiver and there was no reason to believe he couldn’t be the one running shallow routes and sweeping across the middle of the field, catching short passes and turning them into long gains. He’d be the one motioning across the field behind the offensive line before the snap and pulling a fast one after catching that quick push pass.
There was just one problem.
“I’m more comfortable on the outside,” Alford said Saturday, now firmly situated as a starter at outside receiver nine practices into his first and only round of spring football at WVU.
Just as Austin started outside and found prolific success inside, Alford turned into a terror on the outside after being moved late last season. His transition was slowed by an injury shortly after enrolling last summer and by the fact fellow junior college transfers Kevin White and Ronald Carswell had enrolled in January and May, respectively.
Carswell started four of the first eight games, but was suspended before the TCU game.
He didn’t play the rest of the season and was eventually kicked off the team, which gave Alford his chance. The coaches were encouraged to trust their hunch and move Alford outside.
“The lights came on,” receivers coach Lonnie Galloway said. “He needs to improve on a few things and keep the other things that he does well. He’s strong enough, he’s physical and he can run. If you can run and you’re strong, it’s easier to play outside.”
Alford started once in the first eight games and had only nine catches for 102 yards. After moving outside, he caught 18 passes for 450 yards and four touchdowns. He had eight receptions for 215 yards and one score in the finale against Iowa State, and the yardage matched Austin’s output from a year earlier as the third-best total in school history.
Alford not only gave the Mountaineers a body outside, but he gave them big plays. The offense couldn’t connect on deep balls because it didn’t have someone who could run go routes and post patterns. Alford is seven inches shorter than 35 pounds lighter than White, the team’s other starter outside, but Alford nevertheless got open early and ran free in the secondary.
“One-on-one, the coaches felt nobody could stay in front of me,” he said. “It’s just free releases. I worked on getting a free release straight off the line. When the ball is snapped, I get a free release and I just go.”
Alford can really go, too. Positioned outside, he was free from the traffic he encountered inside. There were no linebackers or nickel backs or occasional defensive linemen to weave through and run around to get open. It was just a cornerback, and removing all the other obstacles let him go right to his strength.
“I’d say I’m the fastest on the team,” he said.
Once they found a spot for Alford, the Mountaineers found confidence in him and produced other ways to use him. He ran a reverse for a 20-yard gain against Texas and averaged 23 yards on eight kickoff returns near the end of the season. They’ll find ways to add to that next season, though Alford has found simplicity has its benefits.
While it’s fun to be used a bunch of different ways like Austin, it’s more fun to be really good at something.
“Just working on your craft at one position, you get much better at it,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing this spring. I’m working on my fundamentals at one position so they can lean on me come game time.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.