By Dave Morrison
Register-Herald Sports Writer
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. —
To come from where he was in August to where he is today — little more than 24 hours away from being the Mountaineers’ starting tailback against Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl, Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Sun Life Stadium — is a testament to Shawne Alston.
Plain and simple.
There was a whole lot of talk about the West Virginia running game under first-year coach Dana Holgorsen, heading into the season opener against Marshall.
And Alston was not really part of it.
All the talk centered around three freshmen — Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie and Vernard Roberts — and a sophomore — Trey Johnson.
They seemed to fit the perceived mold of a Holgorsen running back. Short, quick backs with pass-catching ability.
Besides, Alston had been sidelined with a neck injury that forced him to miss the preseason and the first two games of 2011.
But the season is a long, long journey.
Johnson has announced he is transferring.
Vernard Roberts was academically ineligible for the bowl and is said to be transferring as well.
And worse yet, Garrison, who had emerged to the head of that freshman trio, suffered a torn ACL/MCL during WVU’s first day of practice in Florida.
“I’m glad my teammates and coaches believed in me,” Alston said. “When I missed the first couple of games after my injury they could have redshirted me or just looked past me. I just kept working hard and I was able to come back.”
Not that he came out of nowhere.
He did have 248 yards as Noel Devine’s backup last year.
But the injury took as big a toll on Alston as the lack of work.
“It was bad at the beginning of the year, real bad,” Alston said. “I went through treatment for it everyday. It’s still not 100 percent but it is to the point where I can play without much pain. But they still won’t let me take the neck roll off.”
He soldiered on, mainly because of his coaches and teammates.
“I just talked to the coaches, coach Gillespie and coach Holgorsen and my teammates, Tavon (Austin), Dustin, (Ryan) Clark. They’d say, ‘C’mon, now, we need you, hurry up and get back.’ It helped me.”
His linemen say it is actually easier to block for Alston, a 5-foot-11, 221-pound junior.
“You know that you don’t have to block more than one guy, because he’s going to run over one or two,” center Joe Madsen said. “That’s nice to know.”
Garrison accounted for well over half of the Mountaineers’ rushing yardage this season. He had 742 net yards, including a tour de force 291 against Bowling Green on Oct. 1. Everyone else combined for 671 of WVU’s net of 1,413.
Of that, Alston had 339 yards on 77 carries.
But he came up huge on a snowy track at Rutgers Oct. 29 when he rushed for 110 yards and two scores on 14 carries.
He finished this season with 10 rushing touchdowns, specializing in goal-line situations.
The role will now change. He will have to take up the slack for Garrison, who had emerged as a reliable fixture in the backfield.
“I have practiced every play in the playbook out on the practice field,” Alston said. “Sometimes we run tempo and aren’t able to sub. But I rep all that in practice so none of that will be a surprise.”