WVU football: For Mountaineers, Alston is ready for larger load
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- At 6 feet and 235 pounds, Shawne Alston is not exactly easy to miss, let alone invisible.
Yet the West Virginia University senior running back feels as though nobody has ever gotten a good look at who he is during his three seasons, 11 starts, 27 games, 159 rushes and 707 yards.
"People haven't seen me at the level I can perform at now," Alston said, "but they're going to get a show Sept. 1."
Alston is healthy for the first time since he arrived at WVU in 2009 from Phoebus High in Hampton, Va., as a promising freshman with a punishing style who was supposed to solve the team's short-yardage and goal line woes.
He instead carried six times for 18 yards, all in one game, as he burned his redshirt on a completely nondescript role. A year later, he was slowed by a knee injury and last season it was a neck problem that lingered after he was hurt in a car accident during the team's winter break.
With a full and fruitful spring, offseason and preseason under his shoulder pads, none of which he was able to attain during Coach Dana Holgorsen's first season, Alston is the team's unquestioned starting running back.
While he says he was no better than 75 percent healthy last season, Alston is ready to go now, and it shows.
"It's night and day," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "He's a kid that gives you 110 percent, even when he's not healthy, and he can take it to the next level. He's a guy the offensive line loves because he can make you right sometimes when you're wrong. Coaches can call a bad play into a bad front, but he can make it right."
Alston will be the team's starter when the 11th-ranked Mountaineers host Marshall on Saturday. The noon game will be televised by FX.
"He's a guy that, if you look back at the tape last year, keeps the chains moving and helps us stay on the field. Plus, he puts the ball in the end zone," Gillespie said. "He had a great offseason and he's got a great attitude. He's a natural leader. He's a guy who is embraced because of his attitude and his demeanor. If we can keep him healthy, he can have a big-time year."
That will be the perpetual focus for Alston and the Mountaineers this season, especially with sophomore Dustin Garrison's status still unknown.
Last year's leading rusher is recovering from the left ACL tear in December. Monitoring Alston will be as challenging as it will be concerning.
"With his style of running, he's going to get banged up," Gillespie said. "He needs to be able to take more of the bumps he took last year and he has to have the endurance to play the whole game."
This is all new to Alston, whose 20 carries in the Orange Bowl in relief of Garrison were a career high. He only had double-digit carries four times before that. Alston was good for about 12 to 15 carries a game and maybe twice as many total snaps.
Gillespie said Alston's offseason and preseason preparations have him ready for handle at least 10 more snaps a game now. More important will he his ability to stay on the field and not have to take a break because he's taken a hit or taken the ball a number of snaps in a row.
In the final week of WVU's preseason camp, the coaches tested sophomore Andrew Buie by giving him the ball a dozen or so times in a row. Alston isn't quite there, and there was no need to push him that way, but he's aiming for the same durability.
He's worked with a nutritionist and paid careful attention to his diet. He and the athletic trainers have taken care of his body before and after workouts and practices. Last year, Alston sat out the team's conditioning test. This year, he passed it on the first shot.
"As far as the preparation and the weight room and the conditioning and all that stuff goes, last year I was on a different weight lifting regimen and guys had a different running schedule than me because of my neck," Alston said.
"Being healthy this offseason allowed me to lift better and run more and get in better shape and now I'll be able to come out and apply that to the football field. Last year, I couldn't make some of these cuts I'm making in practice and I couldn't break away on runs like I am now."
The Mountaineers are asking more of Alston by also requiring less. Gillespie wants Alston to lose a few pounds and drop from almost 240 to somewhere near 230. The size suits him well when the offense needs a yard, but he's also is skilled at things the Mountaineers will do on any down. He runs the inside and outside zone plays and can run routes to catch passes.
He was actually WVU's third-down back in 2010 on a team that had the shifty Noel Devine and ubiquitous Jock Sanders.
"Everybody talks about (how) he's a bruiser, but I don't like that," Gillespie said. "He's just a big back. Look at the NFL Draft this year. The backs who were drafted were 5-10, 230, 5-9, 225. Backs are bigger, so he's just a bigger back and a guy who can do everything for us."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.