Tonkery sees opportunity to prove himself in Orange Bowl
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. - West Virginia safety Wes Tonkery hasn't started a game since 2009 when Bridgeport High School lost in the Class AAA semifinals.
That Indians team was 12-0 before falling to eventual state champion South Charleston, 28-25.
An All-State running back in 2008 and a pick at defensive back in 2009, Tonkery hasn't played much since. He redshirted last year and has played only enough this season to make four tackles - or as many as long snapper Cody Nutter.
It all can change Wednesday night in the Orange Bowl. Tonkery is one of the options to start at spur safety for No. 23 WVU. Starter Terence Garvin is out with a knee injury.
"I knew this could be a little different," Tonkery said. "Obviously, there's a chance, but I knew I wouldn't be the only one. I knew I wouldn't be welcomed to the position. I knew there would be a fight to get the position."
His first season as a player has taught him that much. Garvin, the junior from Baltimore, missed the team's win against Cincinnati. Tonkery, right behind Garvin on the depth chart, didn't start and played just a little. The start instead went to Travis Bell, the backup free safety who was elevated when the starter there, Eain Smith, started in Garvin's spot.
"That did help me get better as a player," Tonkery said. "I probably stay more focused in practice and practice a little harder and pay more attention to things now."
That's one of two places where the Mountaineers (9-3) will feature a new starter against No. 14 Clemson (10-3). Freshman running back Dustin Garrison sprained ligaments in his right knee in practice Friday. It was a non-contact injury that will require surgery in a few days.
The only other running backs WVU has on its roster are junior Shawne Alston and freshman Andrew Buie. Coach Dana Holgorsen said Alston will start, but Buie will play plenty.
"Shawne give us a lot of maturity, as he has all year," Holgorsen said. "Andrew Buie has probably looked as good as he has since camp. We'll start Shawne because Shawne's a guy who has been playing all year and has done a good job for us. Buie's a guy who played a lot early. He just got hurt. Between the two of them, we can do anything we want."
Alston rushed for 10 touchdowns and averaged 4.4 yards per carry, but he only carried 77 times. Buie started the first and third games, but didn't start the second game and later missed two games and a part of a third because of injuries. He had 38 carries for 127 yards. He only averaged 3.3 yards per carry and never had more than 12 yards on any run.
Both will play and work in tandem, as has been the case at running back all season. The 6-foot, 220-pound Alston missed the first two games of the season as he worked his way back from an offseason neck injury, but has played and improved in the final 10 games. Buie is 5-9 and 185 pounds, an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Garrison. Both Buie and Alston are good receivers out of the backfield and Alston was actually WVU's third-down back last season.
"Let's keep in mind that throughout all of fall camp, we thought Buie was a bit better than Garrison," Holgorsen said. "Buie just got hurt. He's a good, quality player and I'm looking forward to getting him in the lineup to see what he can do."
Tonkery may still get scooped again and by someone from another position again. True freshman Shaq Petteway has been switching with Tonkery in practice. Petteway was the backup bandit safety up until the Mountaineers learned Garvin would miss the bowl.
He's been taking rapid lessons from Garvin to get familiar with the assignments and comfortable with the surroundings. The new position puts him in new spaces.
"The bandit safety is more of an up safety and plays more against the pass," Petteway said. "The spurs safety is more of a down safety and the way Terence played it, he was really good as a blitzer and a run-stopper and covering the flats."
Petteway played linebacker at Ohio's Steubenville High School and made 301 tackles his final three seasons. The spur is a mix of linebacker and defensive back in WVU's 3-3-5. He said he feels more at home at spur, but he's fighting the instincts he was developing at bandit.
"My teammates keep pushing me to go out there and play the game like I did in high school and not try to play a perfect game," said the 6-foot, 200-pound Petteway, who is an inch shorter and five pounds lighter than Tonkery. "That's when you mess up. I just want to go out there and play the best I can."
Just like at running back, one will start and both will play. WVU's coaching staff won't reveal the starter until before kickoff.
"I want to earn it rather than be shoved into it," Tonkery said. "That makes practice more fun. It's not as hard to stay focused in practice. If I mess up something and he does it right, that's a learning experience. It helps you learn something and helps you pay attention the whole time."
Tonkery isn't the only one paying attention. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd the Tigers will challenge the spur position.
"We'll definitely take some shots," Boyd said. "That's what we do. That's the type of offense we have."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.