MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dustin Garrison had 19 yards rushing last season. He had four carries go at least that long when he ran for 291 yards against Bowling Green in 2011.
In the parlance of college football, that was a lifetime ago. That was a torn ACL, a bum hamstring and two lost seasons ago — and technically, one of those seasons never happened. Forced to play in 2012 and hobbled by the hamstring to the point he took a medical redshirt last season, Garrison is back, seemingly better than ever and very much in the thick of the crowded competition at running back.
“He had a great spring,” running backs coach JaJuan Seider said after Saturday’s Gold-Blue Game. “He did exactly what he was supposed to do. He went out and competed his butt off every day.
“Dustin’s a guy who’s been counted out his whole life, but the only thing he ever does is find a way.”
Garrison found a way to run for a game-high 47 yards on 10 carries, a total matched only by Wendell Smallwood. That’s the same Smallwood who coach Dana Holgorsen said is probably the best player on offense. Garrison’s performance authenticated his spring and confirmed he’s on the right side of a bad time in his life.
Garrison was forced from his New Orleans home by Hurricane Katrina, so he relocated and blossomed into the best high school running back in the Houston area. He hasn’t been himself for more than two years on the field and he hasn’t been allowed to be himself off the field. The conversations and the questions always fall back to the career-altering knee injury days before the 2012 Orange Bowl, but all along Garrison has been hoping and working to change the talking points.
“My knee is 100 percent,” he said. “There’s no problem with it. There’s no problem with any other part of my body. I think right now I’m ready to prove that to everyone, to the coaches, to myself. I’m ready to step out on the field and make plays. This season, I’m ready not to have any doubts about who I am or what kind of runner I am. Wherever I’m at on the depth chart, any time I get on the field I want to be a success.”
Garrison never truly doubted his ability. He knew injuries were robbing him of speed and agility and explosiveness, but he wasn’t prepared for what the lasting effects would do. He wasn’t prepared for how his issues affected others and how those thoughts eventually weakened his defenses.
“I think people doubted me more than I ever doubted myself and that really bothered me,” he said.
What’s forgotten, though, is that Garrison was made to be something he probably never should have been. He tore his left ACL late in December 2011 and was told he faced six months of recovery. He was around for the start of practice in August, but he was slow to shed a brace and find his footing.
He sat out the first two games and carried two times for one yard in non-conference play. He ran the ball just 46 times that season, despite a shortage or running backs and injuries to both Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie, and didn’t play in the bowl game that came four weeks after he carried four times for 31 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season finale against Iowa State.
Garrison felt better about everything last season, except he knew Charles Sims and Dreamius Smith were brought to campus for a reason and that Smallwood was playing with a purpose. He barely played the first two games and then pulled the hamstring in practice before the Maryland game.
Garrison never played again because he was never right again, and Holgorsen knew it.
“He called me into his office and asked me if I was willing to take a medical redshirt,” Garrison said, well aware he had that option. “He told me I should have had it my sophomore year, but that we didn’t have enough bodies for me to take the medical redshirt. Last year was perfect timing with Charles and Dreamius and Wendell coming in.”
So far this year, the redshirt junior has found he’s different and better player. He runs hard inside, which is a necessity to play for the Mountaineers. They want to run downhill, which means a healthy diet of inside zone runs and the power plays that follow the guards through the middle. Backs are sprung in the middle and free to use their speed to get away from there.
“My freshman year, I trusted my speed and liked the outside zone more,” Garrison said.
It’s different now because Garrison knows he’s a tougher player who can handle the tougher runs. Some of it comes from time spent in the weight room and knowing his body is better suited to handle the action. Some of it comes from his time in the offense and knowing where the parts go and where the pieces fit.
What Garrison said matters most, though, is that he learned to run hard when he had no other options in 2012.
“I pushed my body to the limits, and it showed on the field,” he said. “I wasn’t as agile or as athletic as I felt like I should have been, but it helped me get prepared mentally for this. It helped me run a lot harder, like I do now, just going through that process being 60 percent 75 percent, and still trying to grind out three yards. I learned a lot throughout that season. I learned a lot about myself.”
With two injuries and listless doubts in his past, Garrison wasn’t deterred by the presence of Smith, Smallwood, Buie and Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, one of the top running back recruits in 2012.
“Ever since I’ve been here, there’s been constant competition,” said Garrison, the leading rusher in 2011. “The game of football teaches you a lot and coaches teach you a lot, but the main thing is it’s only going to make you a better person. Not just on the field, but off the field just knowing you’ve got to be tough and stick with things and never give up. Nothing is going to be handed to you. You’re the only one who’s going to make you any better.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.