At a position more jam-packed with talent than any other on West Virginia’s football team, there is a good argument to be made that Dustin Garrison is the forgotten piece in the puzzle.
True, Garrison is among the most accomplished of WVU’s current crop of running backs, at least statistically. The fact is, of the five fighting for playing time this spring, he’s run for more yards, 968, than all but one other. Andrew Buie has run for 1,023, but Garrison has a much better average per carry, 5.2 yards compared to Buie’s 4.4.
The other three backs in the mix — Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood and Pitt transfer Rushel Shell — have a combined 715 yards as Mountaineers.
So why is Garrison considered the odd man out? Well, it’s because he’s basically disappeared the last two seasons. He led the team in rushing as a freshman with 742 yards, but that was all the way back in 2011. He blew out a knee in practice just before the Orange Bowl that season, struggled to come back from that in 2012 and then redshirted last season after carrying just four times early in the year.
Garrison, though, has a bit of a message for anyone who thinks he might be a long shot in WVU’s running back derby: Don’t overlook the little guy.
“Every time I get a chance I run like it’s my last play,’’ Garrison said.
On Saturday, in front of an estimated crowd of 6,000 at UC Stadium, Garrison did just that. In a scrimmage that went on for about 90 plays and didn’t contain a lot of offensive fireworks, Garrison carried the ball nine times for 39 yards and caught two passes for another 16 yards.
While those aren’t eye-popping numbers, he did score two of the afternoon’s four offensive touchdowns and left a definite mark.
“I thought Garrison had a really good scrimmage,’’ offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “He showed up. He was a guy that stuck out.’’
There were others who did so as well, of course. Wendell Smallwood was the afternoon’s leading rusher with 55 yards on just six carries. K.J. Myers came up as a clutch receiver with six catches for 74 yards and Devonte Mathis caught six passes for 61 yards and a score. Paul Millard completed 19 of 24 passes for 175 yards. Ishmael Banks returned a fumble just over 70 yards for a touchdown and Elijah Wellman, the freshman from Spring Valley, caught three passes for 39 yards and scored on the last play of the scrimmage.
Perhaps no one, though, left the workout having done more to improve his stock than Garrison. At a position so filled with talent, simply making plays when the time comes might be the thing that separates the backs. Garrison made them, scoring the two touchdowns and fighting for hard yards and a first down on a screen pass.
“Overall I think I did a good job. I can’t really think of anything I messed up,’’ Garrison said. “But that’s why we have film.
“There are times when you think you did pretty good and then you watch film and the coaches critique every little thing you do. [The reverse] happens a lot, too, but that’s what film is for. You watch that kind of stuff and build on those things and work on that.’’
Perhaps what Garrison did best Saturday was show that he is more than a one-trick pony. When he led the team in rushing with 742 yards as a freshman — including a 291-yard effort in a game against Bowling Green — he did so primarily as a speed back. At 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, that was entirely expected.
But on Saturday his touchdowns showed power at the goal line, and his reception on that screen pass was almost all guts. In a backfield race in which he is by far the smallest candidate, that matters.
“There is a lot of size difference between the backs, but I don’t let that get to me,’’ Garrison said. “Blocking-wise I think I’m just as good as Dreamius or any of the other bigger backs. Running-wise I think I’m just as fast as Wendell or anyone else.
“Overall I think we all have certain things we do well, but I don’t let my size or my speed dictate how I play.’’
Dawson agreed, at least as far as what he saw Saturday is concerned.
“Dustin can play when he plays like that, there’s no doubt,’’ Dawson said. “And people have seen that. He played hard. He went [forward], and for a little guy that’s good.’’
In many ways, the trials of the past two seasons have benefited Garrison. He’s had a chance to get stronger — in addition to recovering from his knee and hamstring injuries — and his drop in production and playing time has given him a new resolve. He knows that what he did in 2011 no longer matters.
“Basically I take that kind of mindset with it,’’ Garrison said. “It was years ago. My freshman year I had a great year, but that’s in the past. We’ve got new guys coming in, a new running backs coach, all that kind of stuff.
“I’ve got a lot to prove, not only to these coaches, but to myself. That’s why I’ve tried to run so much harder and train so much harder. I’ve got so much to prove to everybody.’’
The redshirt last season also gave Garrison extra time to work on his academics. He accomplished so much that he’s on track to graduate in December with a degree in criminology. After the coming season he will have a diploma in hand and still another year of eligibility.
“That meant a lot to me, not just football-wise, but school-wise,’’ Garrison said of the redshirt season. “Now I’m graduating a little ahead of time so I can start working on some extra school stuff while I’m playing another year.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.