Mountaineer Gameday: Alston found role as big back in Air Raid offense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There was a time, we must remember, when Shawne Alston was an afterthought in West Virginia's offense.
Make that West Virginia's passing offense.
This time was not this season, when the senior running back was slowed and sidelined for a string of games by a rather rowdy deep thigh bruise before returning with an attitude in last week's win against Iowa State with 130 yards and a touchdown.
Nor was it last season, when he was first limited by an offseason car accident that messed up his neck and then by the emergence of then freshman Dustin Garrison - the same Garrison who tore up his knee in a practice before the Orange Bowl and was ably replaced by Alston and his 77 yards and two scores.
No, it was the spring of 2011, when Dana Holgorsen arrived as the offensive coordinator with the fancy offense that spread the field, passed the ball and put quarterbacks and receivers on All-American and NFL teams.
So what was a running back to do, let alone a 6-foot, 235-pounder who wasn't known to run routes and catch passes, who couldn't fake out defenders in space, who hadn't run away from a cornerback in quite some time?
Alston stayed and starred and will leave a certain legacy on Mountaineer Field Saturday, his last home game and one against lowly Kansas (1-10, 0-9) at 2:30 p.m. on ROOT Sports. Where some may have left and others could have quit, Alston instead stayed and totally changed the way WVU thinks about the running back position in its version of the Air Raid offense.
"He's a guy that we didn't realize what he was until after we used him a little bit," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "We didn't know what a guy his size could do in this offense, but he's definitely opened our eyes as a staff to see a bigger guy can definitely help this offense."
In fairness to the coaches, they couldn't have been sure what to think.
Alston was misused by the previous staff as a freshman in 2009, when it was decided he wouldn't redshirt because he could help short-yardage woes that defined the 2008 team.
That turned into six carries and 19 yards in one blowout win at Syracuse.
A season later, he played in one game, a rout of UNLV, in the first eight games of the regular season. He surged in the final four with 214 yards, eight touchdowns and 48 carries before carrying just twice in the team's bowl loss.
Then came the coaching change and the unknown future, but Alston's everlasting belief that he would play and that he was the baddest man on the field never failed.
The coaches have seen the offense with and without him this season and it's clear that the Mountaineers are better with the burly Alston bursting into the middle of the field and barreling through the open spaces the offense creates.
And they'd like to keep that going in the future.
"With this prolific offense, I feel honored, I guess, to be a building block for it," Alston said.
"I feel honored to be that guy, but I feel like whoever we plug in will be able to do it, too. We still have Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison and a couple other freshmen coming and I think they'll thrive in it, but if they can also get a big back in there, he'll be good at it, too."
Alston has a skill the offense can make utilize. Even though his body is wider and doesn't accelerate as quickly as the others, he's actually quite good at the inside and outside zone plays the Mountaineers like to use. Alston doesn't dance, so he sees his gap in the blocking zone, makes his one cut, turns his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and dares people to tackle him.
Buie and Garrison are different, smaller players with shiftier skills that try to avoid the hits Alston invites. Buie hasn't held up physically in his first two years and Garrison, because he is similarly sized, figures to be in the same situation. With an offense that passes as much, there is no feature back, and though Buie and Garrison would complement one another in the future, so, too, would a bigger back who can change the pace and challenge the defense in a different way, in a way Alston does.
The opportunity is there. Buie and Garrison, still finding his form after last year's knee injury, are sophomores. They're the only underclassmen running backs on scholarship. The Mountaineers want to land a number of backs in the incoming recruiting class. They already have commitments from four players who project as ball carriers, as opposed to blockers, and their sizes vary.
"We've got some running backs we're on right now, a good mixture of size and smaller guys, but to find a guy who's 220 or 230 pounds and has good vision and good footwork, that's something that definitely Shawne opened our eyes to, to where we say, 'That guy can play in our offense,' " Gillespie said.
Not as the main running back, because the Mountaineers still want the back who can run fast and catch passes and hang around the pocket to pass protect. The big body is not the prototype and it's not one the coaches will base their offense around, but it would be part of a package of players that will give Gillespie and Holgorsen a number of players and a number of options. It's a nuance made possible by a guy who wasn't supposed to play in the offense.
"You definitely want some mixture of the kinds of backs you have," Gillespie said. "The perfect combination would be getting a guy who's 5-10, 5-11, 210 pounds and does it all - catch, run, block. You want to have smaller guys on the perimeter you can do things with.
"That's what we don't have. We don't have that mixture of depth, which is why a guy like Tavon Austin is moving all over the place and gives you the best of both worlds. Eventually, you want guys who can do it all and create a depth where you've guy the guys you can win with, but a guy like Shawne is someone we realize we can win with."