MORGANTOWN — Mario Alford fully understands what it’s like to be a square peg forced into a round hole.
He spent much of his first season at West Virginia in that position.
In Alford’s case, his square peg was as a fleet wide receiver. The round hole was the slot receiver position he was being asked to fill.
“My first few games, when I was at slot receiver, I felt kind of lost,’’ Alford said. “Toward the end of the season it was a whole different story.’’
The end of last season, of course, is when West Virginia’s coaches relented and put Alford where he needed to be.
On the surface, perhaps it doesn’t seem that the two positions are like night and day. Receivers are receivers, right? They line up in space, they run routes and they catch the football.
There’s more to it than that, though.
“It’s much easier outside,’’ Alford said. “Basically you run vertical routes. It’s not so difficult. And one-on-one, outside, I can beat people with my speed.’’
In other words, run fast and catch the ball.
“Yes sir,’’ Alford said.
If there was any question that Alford was more suited to the wideout spots instead of the slot, he seemed to erase it after he was moved last season. One needs to look no further than the numbers to get the picture.
In the first eight games of the season, playing primarily in the slot, Alford caught nine passes for 102 yards and no touchdowns. That’s an average of 1.1 catches for 11.3 yards per game.
In the final four games, the only four at which he started as an outside receiver, Alford caught 18 passes for 450 yards and two scores. That’s an average of 4.5 catches for 112.5 yards.
By the end of the season, Alford had finally found his groove, catching eight passes for 215 yards in the finale against Iowa State.
So why the push to make Alford an inside receiver? Well, it actually seemed rather natural. For starters, he’s built like one at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds. Think Tavon Austin, who was essentially the same size. Last year, the Mountaineers desperately wanted to replace Austin as best they could, and Alford seemed like the best fit.
Coaches like their wideouts taller, too, guys like 6-foot-3 Kevin White, who can go downfield and jump for balls.
At first, Alford didn’t mind.
“I came in thinking I was going to get straight to it at slot receiver. That’s where they wanted me,’’ he said. “But there was a lot to it, a lot to that job. Yeah, I felt frustrated.
“Just knowing the correct reads, knowing where the linebackers are playing, where everyone is [on the defense]. Just stuff like that. I think if I’d worked harder at it I would have got it down.’’
Again, though, why try to put a square peg in a round hole?
“As time went on, I studied film, I studied the playbook and I learned the slot receiver job,’’ Alford said. “But it just didn’t work out. When I moved outside it felt great.’’
So now, as West Virginia heads into the final days of preseason camp and the beginning of classes, Alford couldn’t be more comfortable. He and White are firmly entrenched as the starting wide receivers, with Daikiel Shorts and Jordan Thompson playing the slots.
As it turns out, Alford isn’t missed at the position. Shorts started eight of the last nine games there and wound up catching 45 passes. Thompson is naturally suited to the slot, especially if he can reproduce his practice performance in games.
“I could [have played there] if I had to I guess,’’ Alford said. “But they were putting a lot of pressure on me, wanting me to start right then and there and just know it. But it takes time after time after time to get it.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.