The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 13, 2013

Alford stepping up as offensive threat for WVU

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

BECKLEY — Comparing another football player to Tavon Austin is about as fair as comparing any other delivery driver to Santa Claus. No matter how many houses a UPS or FedEx driver reaches in a night, he’s not going to make it all the way around the world and have time to snack on cookies and milk in the process.

At West Virginia, no matter how much explosiveness a wide receiver possesses, it’s doubtful he’ll ever come close the the production of Austin, who left Morgantown as the all-time receiving leader (288 catches for 3,413 yards and 29 touchdowns), as well as a 1,000-yard rusher and one of the most dangerous return men (34 punt returns for 433 yards and a touchdown, 97 kickoff returns for 2,407 yards and four touchdowns) to ever wear the Mountaineer uniform.

Is difficult, though, to ignore the similarities between Austin — who just had a breakout game for the St. Louis Rams, catching two passes for 138 yards and a pair of touchdowns while returning a punt 98 yards for another score — and WVU junior wide receiver Mario Alford.

Both stand 5-foot-9. Austin weighs in at 171 pounds, while Alford is just four pounds heavier at 175.

Speed? Austin’s 40 time turned heads at the NFL Draft Combine, before he was selected with the eighth overall pick, and Alford won a Georgia state championship in high school, running the 100-meter dash in 10.77 seconds.

Until WVU’s meeting with Texas last Saturday, though, that’s where the comparisons stopped.

Alford a junior college transfer from Georgia Military College — who picked WVU over Kansas, Ole Miss, Texas Tech, Cincinnati and Arizona — caught just 12 passes for 165 yards in his first eight games in a Mountaineer uniform and didn’t score a touchdown. He carried the ball four times on the ground, but managed just 27 yards. He wasn’t coming close to putting up the numbers he had at GMC, where he led the team in rushing, averaging more than 10 yards per carry.

A move from slot receiver to outside receiver, though, seemed to make a difference. After battling injuries and catching just one pass for 15 yards in three weeks of action — WVU’s losses to Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas State —Alford stepped up in the Mountaineers’ win over TCU, catching three passes for 62 yards. Then, under the lights against Texas, the Greenville, Ga., native shined brighter than ever before. He ran once for 20 yards on and end around and caught four passes for 97 yards. The big play came when he beat a Longhorn cornerback one-on-one with no safety help, hauled in a slant pass and raced past the defender 72 yards for a go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter.

“That made me smile,” said WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “Maybe for the first time all year, we took a routine play and made a big play out of it. He’s getting comfortable out there.”

Holgorsen believes the subtle position switch has made a big impact.

“I kick myself for not doing in earlier,” he said. “When we recruited him, we thought that he was like a Tavon Austin kind of guy. He played a lot of running back, and they moved him around.”

But Holgorsen quickly remembered that Austin, who played his first two seasons in the late Bill Stewart’s offense, took some time to adjust to the Holgorsen style, as well.

“Tavon was a junior when I got here (in the spring of 2011), and he was there in the spring,” he said. “We had Tavon all spring, and his junior year wasn’t that great. He only had, I think, two receiving touchdowns until the Orange Bowl. He got more comfortable and better with the system. It’s harder to play inside than outside.”

So instead of waiting for Alford, who clearly possessed some playmaking ability, to learn the intricacies of the slot role, Holgorsen moved him to a spot where he would be able to contribute right away, helping WVU find its missing offense.

“We finally got smart and moved him to outside,” said Holgorsen. “He got real comfortable and has been getting better every week. What he did on Saturday was good to see. But he’s been heading in that direction ever since we moved him there.”

Alford’s also starting to make an impact in the return game. He’s returned six kickoffs and leads WVU with a 22.2-yard return average. His long of 43 yards is a team best.

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WVU (4-6, 2-5 Big 12) will be at Kansas (2-7, 0-6 Big 12) Saturday at noon for a game that will be televised by ROOT Sports. The Jayhawks will be looking to break a 26-game Big 12 losing streak. Their last conference win came on Nov. 6, 2010, when they beat Colorado 52-45.

“Every bit of juice that I have is going into this game,” said KU head coach Charlie Weis, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator and Notre Dame head coach. “We’re already in the playoffs. The playoff started when we got eliminated (from bowl contention). These (last three games) are our playoffs.”

WVU, meanwhile, must win its last two to go to a bowl game for a 12th straight season.

“We’re preparing for Kansas,” said senior offensive lineman Pat Eger, promising WVU has put the 47-40 overtime loss to Texas behind it. “We’re going to win these next two games and go to a bowl game.That’s all we can do now.”