In the zone: Alston finds place in WVU offense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It's not the expectations or the explanations that line up to conspire against Shawne Alston. It's the stack of inches and the pile of pounds that suggest the senior isn't the ideal running back for West Virginia's offense.
Yet when preseason practice opens in a little less than a month, it is the 5 foot, 11 inch, 220-pound Alston who seems likely to at begin atop the depth chart.
Never mind those who say he can't run WVU's plays because he's too big or too slow.
Even if he doesn't hold off Andrew Buie, even if he must make room for the recovering Dustin Garrison, even if freshmen make a dent in the number of available carries, trust Alston will have a spot.
Even in a run offense that is rooted in zone plays and zone blocking schemes that most assume are meant for someone a little shorter and a lot lighter than Alston.
"People say I'm not a prototypical zone back, but when you start to read too much into what people are saying about you, then your mind is in the wrong spot," Alston said. "Their perception is probably not going to change much, so you've got to go out and do what you've got to do to take care of business."
Believe it or not, Alston, who will never be confused with a Noel Devine or a Garrison because of their size and his speed, has two things that work well: Eyes and experience. Dana Holgorsen's offense runs a lot of inside and outside zone plays - Alston said one or the other makes up most of the calls and several other plays can use zone blocking - and success often depends on seeing a possibility and trusting the blockers.
Alston has 159 carries, 682 yards (4.3 per attempt) and 12 touchdowns to his name in three years running mostly zone plays. The pre-Holgorsen West Virginia offense ran the zone, and while Alston battled for the few leftover carries and managed just 62 attempts in mostly power or short-yardage situations, he still practiced those zone plays and grew familiar with how to make the runs work.
With zone plays, the offensive linemen either block the defender in front of them or, if there is no defender, the defender battling a teammate. When the opponent is double teamed, one of the linemen slips off the block and finds someone else.
On inside zone plays, the linemen try to push the defenders up the field to open a lane for the running back. On outside zone plays, the linemen move laterally to the side the play is directed to and try to push the defenders inside to open a lane. If that doesn't work because the defenders beat the blockers to the outside, the linemen push the defenders toward the sideline. The running back has to see either outcome coming and make the correct read before making the correct cut.
"It's a little different for a bigger guy, especially the outside zone because there's more lateral movement, but for both you want to get your shoulders straight and run downhill," Alston said. "Once you get square, it's your world."
In truth, zone plays can be great equalizers. They don't require towering brutes playing offensive line or rubber-burning backs running the ball. And in Alston's case, he's harder to tackle when he gets going.
Witness his 52-yard outside zone touchdown run in the snow at Rutgers. He read blocks to the sideline and cut inside before stepping through a tackler at his feet. Then there was the simple 1-yard inside zone run for the fifth and final touchdown of the second quarter of the Orange Bowl. Alston, who dragged a defender across the line on the play, got most of his 12 touchdowns last year on inside zones near the goal line because there wasn't enough time or space to make the tackle.
"You have to be able to look at the defense and know the blocking and understand the system and have some anticipation to help the linemen get their blocks," Alston said. "When you run the zone (to the) right, you have to push (to the) right so the defense flows and the linemen get the blocks. Then you just make the cut.
"Size doesn't really matter too much. It's all about getting downhill."
Alston finally had his breakthrough last season with a career-high 97 carries and the first dozen scores of his career. He split time effectively with Garrison after Garrison took hold of the position early in the season, but it was Alston who carried a career-best 20 times for 77 yards and two scores in place of the injured Garrison in the Orange Bowl.
In his first two years, Alston carried 62 times for a total of 266 yards.
That was in former offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen's offense, which leaned on zone plays that usually went to Devine. When Holgorsen and his pass-first reputation arrived, Alston didn't figure to move up the depth chart much.
As fate would have it, Alston hurt his neck in an offseason car accident following his sophomore season when a drunk driver rear-ended Alston's car at a red light. Alston was limited throughout spring and preseason practice and missed the first two games of the 2011 season. By the time Garrison was gaining 291 yards to take over in the Bowling Green game, Alston was emerging as the complement with 50 yards and the first of his five two-touchdown games.
"I thought my time would be maybe before my junior year, but unfortunately I had to deal with the injury, but I feel like this year is my year," he said. "That's how I have it in my head.
"I always had the utmost confidence in myself. Even when I was looking at Coach Holgorsen's offense last year and saw the outside zones we'd run, I felt like there were things I could do. But it's even like when I was coming out of high school and people were saying, 'Why'd you pick West Virginia? They run a spread offense.' I was never worried because I always felt like I could adjust and play in any offense.
"I'd never let something like that discourage me so now I just have to continue handling myself going forward."