By Cam Huffman
It’s usually the quarterback battle that gets all the attention, but with Geno Smith as entrenched as any starting signal caller in college football, West Virginia University fans have turned their attention toward the second-highest profiled position on a football team — running back.
Who will start for the Mountaineers is a question that has popped up on message boards, sports talk shows and in 2012 college football preview magazines, and it’s a logical inquiry.
Andrew Buie got the start in the opener against Marshall last season and received the bulk of the carries in that game, but injuries cost him much of his freshman season. He ended the year with 172 yards and a touchdown on 51 carries.
Another freshman, Dustin Garrison, stepped up in Buie’s absence, and he ended the year with a team-high 742 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 136 carries, including a record-setting 291-yard performance against Bowling Green. He, too, was bitten by the injury bug, though, and he missed the Orange Bowl with a bad knee.
Junior Shawne Alston was in the mix all year, usually as more of a power back, and he had a huge game in the snow against Rutgers with 110 rushing yards, and was one of a number of offensive weapons against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, netting 77 yards and two touchdowns on 20 totes.
All three are back this season, fighting for a starting position that running backs coach Robert Gillespie seems in no hurry to fill.
“I asked the guys the other day, ‘Who started the first game of the year?’” said Gillespie, a former running back at the University of Florida. “Andrew Buie shot his hand up. ‘Who started the last game?’ Shawne Alston raised his hand. That is what this season can come to again. We don’t know who the starters are going to be and who is going to finish the season, so all of those guys know that we are going to need every hat in that room in order for us to win that championship.
“They are a very unselfish group,” Gillespie continued. “They don’t care who goes out first, because they know that we have a role for each of those guys in that offense. Those guys are going to all play.”
The main reason that there’s room for all of them is that each does a little something different.
At 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, Alston isn’t the fastest back, but he runs with power and can grind out the tough yards.
Garrison is a little smaller (5-9, 166) but can carry the load and is capable of going for a huge day.
Buie is the quickest of the group and has proven to have solid hands in the receiving game, as well.
“We have guys that do a lot of different things,” said Gillespie. “Some guys can catch the ball, some guys are short yardage guys, some guys are better pass protectors. So, I think that we have got a good mixture of guys in our group.”
“It helps a lot that we have so many different schemes and looks,” added Alston. “It allows us to do so many different things. We can keep the defense guessing, as far as what we are going to do.”
Gillespie is confident that playing early will prove to be beneficial to Buie and Garrison the second time around.
“Three true freshmen (including Vernard Roberts, who left the program), played last year, and it was tough,” he said. “But those bumps and bruises that we took are going to pay dividends this year. Those guys are working hard so far.”
WVU will also have the services of Ryan Clarke and Donovan Miles, listed on the depth chart as the B-backs in the Mountaineer offense, more of a fullback-type position.
“That role is going to evolve, and we are going to put the best two players out there,” said Gillespie. “If the best combination is Garrison and Buie, those two will be out there.
“It’s not a true fullback,” he continued, attempting to explain the B-back position. “We do not have a true fullback. We put two good athletes there on the field, and as long as those guys can understand the scheme and know what to do, all those guys are going to play. We don’t have a true defined role for the A or B position, right now.”
With opponents focused so much on Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and the passing game, Alston said the running game could be the Mountaineers’ secret weapon.
“We can definitely run the ball, but we just have so many playmakers out there,” said the Hampton, Va., native. “When you have Tavon and Stedman out there, you have to give them the opportunity to make plays.
“At the same time, we will get our fair amount of carries.”
— E-mail: chuffman@