By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Things worked out far better than anyone could have expected considering the state of affairs of the running game when Dana Holgorsen took over the reins of West Virginia University’s football team.
At the time he had four running backs — Shawne Alston, whose future was in doubt due to a neck injury suffered when he was tackled from behind while driving a car; and a trio of freshmen who reeked of potential but were completely unknown items.
They were Vernard Roberts, who played sparingly and eventually left the program; Andrew Buie, who started the first game of Holgorsen’s head coaching career but who showed only flashes of what he could do, and Dustin Garrison, who eventually wrested the job away via a 291-yard performance against a Bowling Green team that is still waiting for its first tackle of him that day.
The situation looked even more grim when Garrison went down with a serious knee injury while preparing for the Orange Bowl game … a game that finally gave Alston a chance to shine and led to the discovery that he could be a No. 1 rather than a situational running back.
Alston had only this year left in his WVU career, and when they tried to build depth by recruiting a pair of talented running backs, neither made it to opening day, leaving the position dreadfully undermanned, at least until Garrison gets up to speed and gives them three capable runners.
That Alston came roaring out of the gate was not necessarily surprising, given the fact he has accepted leadership of the offense in his senior season and the confidence built on the Orange Bowl’s performance, but what seemed to be a stunner was Buie’s ability to gain 80 rushing yards on six carries, 13.3 yards a carry, while grabbing 31 yards of passes, making him a perfect complement to Alston in the Marshall opener.
While Alston was simply building on what he established last season, Buie was a completely new product, a bigger, stronger version of a kid who showed great potential leading into last season.
The coaching staff, in a way, had a feel for him before he got to WVU, back when they saw him in a crucial situation as a senior in Jacksonville, Fla.
It was the 1-A state championship game two years ago, and Buie’s Trinity Christian Academy was leading with about a minute and 50 seconds left in the third quarter, but the lead had been dwindling since they built it over American Heritage and now it was third-and-15.
“Our momentum had started to die,” Buie recalls.
They called his number. This is significant in itself, for Trinity had a pair of running backs heading for Division I football in Ahmad Christian and Buie.
“It was an outside run,” Buie explained. “A linebacker ducked his head and somehow missed me like … eh, miserably? I cut back across the field and from there it was open field, and I just ran and scored. That changed the whole complexion of the game.”
What said more about Buie was the celebration, or lack of one. He did not go running in front of the grandstand, pulling out on his jersey, exalting himself. He looked for teammates, the linemen who blocked, and turned it into a team thing.
“I never have been the type of person who takes self-glory. I always credit my teammates. If the linemen hadn’t done their job, I wouldn’t have gotten to that point. It feels good as a group when I can say we’re winning as a team than everyone just looking at me,” he explained.
Certainly the touchdown run was revered by the coaching staff, but the reaction after it meant something, too, for is exactly the kind of player Holgorsen wants to develop, a player with an team attitude, much like quarterback Geno Smith.
Buie had much to do in this off-season and might not even have gotten much of a chance if Garrison had healed completely by the opener. But he did what was necessary, growing himself physically and altering a running style that seemed more fit for a demolition derby than a sprint to the end zone.
“He runs like he’s 240 pounds,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said of the 5-9, 188-pounder. “He has to understand that every run you don’t have to run someone over. Sometimes you get tackled, and when you do you get tackled with half your body. He understands not to take head-on shots now, when to fall for forward or go down. He understands how every run should be run now.”
Holgorsen echoed that appraisal.
“He is a guy that plays reckless,” Holgorsen said. “He plays so hard, sometimes I think he just closes his eyes and just runs into people. He’s becoming a better space guy. He’s always been a try-hard, effort guy. He and Dustin were two totally different backs last year. Buie is a guy who has been playing really well, and I probably should have given him the ball a little bit more.”
With Alston and Smith and Garrison in the wings, unless WVU decides to redshirt him, WVU has built a dangerous running game, which makes the Mountaineers far more versatile as an offense than they were a year a go.
“We knew last year we struggled to run the ball. There will be some up and down days, but never like last year, 40 yards rushing,” Gillespie said. “Now you’ve got a healthy senior, you’ve got a sophomore that played a lot of plays last year, and you’ve got an offensive line that played a lot of snaps last year.*
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.