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October 7, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Garrison stays grounded after big game

MORGANTOWN — Perhaps the most telling thing about Dustin Garrison, West Virginia University’s latest football hero, came on Sunday when he reported back to Milan Puskar Stadium after having run for 291 yards in a victory over Bowling Green.

At no time did he approach Dan Nehlen, the equipment manager, and ask for a new helmet, one that would fit onto his ego-bloated size 8 head, for there was no need.

True, there was reason to suffer from an inflamed ego. The 291 yards were the most ever by a WVU freshman, the second most yards ever gained on the ground by WVU running back. His name was on every radio newscast and telecast, it stretched from Alaska to Zanzibar on the Internet.

Newspapers bannered his accomplishment in headlines of 72 point type and larger.

It seemed all that was left was to sign a contract for the biography along with a major motion picture.

Heady stuff, for sure, but as Saturday’s noon Big East opener against Connecticut at Milan Puskar Stadium approaches, Garrison has done a wonderful job of keeping his feet squarely planted on the ground, fully aware that it is far easier to make those quick, unexpected cuts that way.

One game, even the best rushing game ever by a WVU freshman, does not a career make and Garrison knows it.

“You go out there and make things happen. Then after a day or two you have to settle down and realize you have another game the following week. I have to practice and leave that behind me,” he said during Tuesday’s player interviews.

In some situations, this might be difficult to do. Not here at West Virginia. Not as a Mountaineer running back.

“Gillespie is always on me to stay hungry and make things happen,” he said.

Gillespie would be running backs coach Robert Gillespie, a one-time Florida player who is a non-nonsense, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of coach.

“He doesn’t let me get too high. He’s real tough and he’s straight forward. He’s making sure I am the same Dustin I was in high school,” Garrison said.

Gillespie understands the forces that tug away at a player as he reaches success, be it being featured on Sports Center or simply having your choice of coeds on Saturday night.

 “I don’t think any of this will get to him. It’s my job to make sure it doesn’t,” Gillespie said. “It’s you guys’ job and everybody around campus’s job to tell him how good he is. It’s my job is to point out the little things and make sure he gets better.”

There’s a fine line there, one where a coach has to acknowledge the success, sit it in the sunlight as if it were plant that was ready to bloom, yet at the same time keep it just a bit thirsty for more knowledge on how to improve.

That comes out of a relationship, one that seems to be strong and growing between coach and player.

Gillespie was recruiting Garrison before he and Dana Holgorsen made the jump from Oklahoma State to WVU. When he took the job he gave him a call to let him know.

“Not a lot of coaches gave me a chance to play college ball. But Gillespie and Coach Holgorsen gave me a chance and I feel I have to show them they made the right call,” he said.

Gillespie finds himself walking something of a tightrope, as he has to keep Garrison grounded after the performance and his other backs – Andrew Buie, Vernard Roberts and Shawne Alston — inspired and competing for a job.

He says he doesn’t believe that Garrison’s performance would deflate the others about their chances.

“There’s nothing about that performance that would have kept those guys from wanting to get better,” he said. “Everyone was excited for Dustin. The one thing I’m excited about is I have a room full of guys who want to see everyone do well.”

Indeed, some of the most sincere congratulations came from the other running backs.

“Everyone was proud of me, the whole running back brigade,” said Garrison. “They’re great guys. They can make plays. This week will be exciting. Everyone will get a chance. Gillespie makes it competition constantly. He makes us work for a spot. He’s still doing that.”

The message certainly has gotten through to Garrison.

“There’s always a competition, no matter how great a game you have. You have to work at it. That’s even more of a reason to fight and keep it up,” he said.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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