WVU football: Garrison healthy and ready to go
MORGANTOWN - Whether she was by his side in the days following the surgery or on the other end of the phone in the lowest moments of the lengthy rehabilitation, Dustin Garrison's mother repeated the rationale, hoping the iterations would have an impact.
"No matter what happens, keep your head up," Shondalon Guillot would say. "Everything happens for a reason."
The reality of a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury, the pangs of popping scar tissue after the operation in January 2012, the agony of watching from the sideline as West Virginia's games and losses happened without him made it hard for Garrison to comprehend, never mind accept, his mother's words.
Gradually, like rebuilding strength, stamina and ultimately confidence in a restructured knee, Garrison has made meaning of the message. Free of restrictions during spring practice a year after he was simply jogging on the side as the Mountaineers went on without him, the junior running back is now right in the middle of the position with the greatest depth of talent on offense.
WVU will likely rely on running backs in Dana Holgorsen's passing offense as a new quarterback emerges and unproven receivers find their form around him.
"I feel like if we do a great job running the ball, that's just going to help the quarterback," said Garrison, who missed the first two games last season.
He didn't get a touch against Iowa State and never played in the bowl loss. "He'll be able to read the defense and the more the linebackers have to play the run, the more that opens up the passing lanes.
"I feel like offensively, if the running backs do a good job, like we have to do, we'll be successful as an offense."
Garrison and Andrew Buie will be in their third year with the Mountaineers. Buie has 230 carries, 1,023 yards and eight touchdowns in his career. Garrison has 180 carries for 949 yards and eight touchdowns. They have similar size and skills. Buie stands about an inch taller and weighs a few more pounds than the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Garrison. Garrison has eight fewer receptions than Buie's 41.
They're also making room for junior college transfer Dreamius Smith, a 5-11, 215-pounder from Butler (Kan.) Community College who had 220 carries for 1,674 yards and 26 touchdowns in two seasons as the Grizzlies won a national title in 2011 and lost in the title game in 2012.
"Dreamius is good," Garrison said. "He's a bigger back than all of us, but he also has the moves. He's pretty quick for his size, but he knows how to use his body. He moves the pile, but he's not just a big guy."
The Mountaineers were limited without Garrison last season. Buie carried 179 yards, but had 25, 31 and 21 in consecutive games against Baylor, Texas and Texas Tech. He had just one more combined carry in the final seven games of the season and averaged just 52 yards per game.
There was no relief, either.
Garrison's most productive performance saw only nine carries and 54 yards against Kansas State. With Buie banged up, Shawne Alston sidelined for four games and Garrison never in form, the Mountaineers actually turned to Tavon Austin and turned him loose on unsuspecting defenses.
That shouldn't be necessary this season with the three juniors, as well as freshman Wendell Smallwood, who is already enrolled. The 5-11, 195-pound Smallwood stands to benefit from the head start. His Eastern Christian Academy team played just three games last season after separating from Delaware's Red Lion Christian Academy in January 2012.
"He's quick," Garrison said. "He sees the hole and he hits it."
WVU's top three receivers from 2012 are gone and the leading returning receiver, Jordan Thompson, caught 13 passes for 85 yards in an underwhelming freshman season. A blend of other new, young and inexperienced players will be mixed in throughout the spring and then preseason practice, all of which puts the ball in the hands of the running backs.
That makes JaJuan Seider's job in his first season as the running backs coach a little more important, though configuring a player rotation isn't new. At Marshall last season, Seider worked with three freshmen who combined for 1,617 yards and 18 touchdowns and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
"Our bigger guys have got a little more athleticism than our smaller guys, but in a good way," Seider said. "At the same time, our smaller guys run like they're bigger guys. Regardless of who's in, it's still going to be the same play.
"With Dreamius being a bigger guy, he's going to be able to fall forward for more yardage than some of the smaller guys, which is exciting. When you've got a chance to put a game away in your four-minute offense and you've got a back like him that you can hand the ball off to, that's exciting."
That's also the way the Mountaineers figure to operate this season. They don't have a superstar. There's no Heisman Trophy buzz. Nobody for now seems headed to the top of the 2014 draft boards. There are so many spots to fill that there's been a heavy emphasis on needing contributions from a collection of players, much like the situation at running back.
"It's really important," Garrison said.
"Coach Holgorsen has talked a lot about how it's going to take the whole team to win games this year, not just one person, not two people. It's going to take the whole team. We're going to carry that through spring ball and the summer and hopefully keep that going throughout the season."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.