By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Last year Dana Holgorsen stumbled into a solid running back left over on the offense he inherited at Oklahoma State in Kendall Hunter, a player of such talent even Holgorsen could not ignore him in favor of his then all-encompassing running game.
It was much like the apple that fell upon Sir Isaac Newton’s head, for it rang a bell for current West Virginia University coach Holgorsen, one that gave him the perfect mix of a runner to go with his sophisticated, proven passing attack. Hunter had averaged 6.5 yards a carry as a true freshman, became an All-American as he led the Big 12 in rushing by 30 yards a game as a sophomore, but was injured as a junior, his production falling off.
After that season Holgorsen entered and found that he could mix his now healthy senior in with his passing game, run complementary stuff off of it, and had himself a running back who gained 1,548 yards on the ground, including 16 touchdowns.
By contrast, West Virginia’s top rusher last season, Noel Devine, rushed for 934 yards, and only Steve Slaton in 2006 and Avon Cobourne in 2002 had ever rushed for more yards than Hunter had put together in a single season.
It was the perfect wrinkle for an offensive philosophy that is built on taking what a defense gives you, an offense built on reads.
In a normal season at West Virginia, there would be no doubt that such a running back existed for Holgorsen to use, the system having produced over the past 15 seasons the likes of Amos Zereoue, Avon Cobourne, K.J. Harris, Quincy Wilson, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine to run out of that position.
This year is different, though, for there is no established running threat, the most promising coming out of a group of freshmen headed by Vernard Roberts, a star in the spring game who came out of Washington, D.C., with his twin brother, Vance, and enrolled early at WVU.
He looked as though he had a chance to be THE guy, but they have brought in some strong competition in a couple of prodigious freshman runners in Andrew Buie out of Trinity Christian in Jacksonville, Fla., where he rushed for 1,782 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior, and Dustin Garrison out of Pearland, Texas, where he led his team to a 16-0 record and a Class 5-A state championship with 2,842 yards and 46 touchdowns.
“The freshman running backs all played well today,” Holgorsen said after Saturday’s practice. “Buie took about three to the house today and Dustin is a different runner where he is very patient, sees it and then squirts through there where he should have lost two yards and gets six.
“Vernard (who had been slightly injured) came back today and had some good, tough runs.”
The man charged with turning all three into weapons on the college level is running backs coach Robert Gillespie, who learned his skills at the top of the heap as a running back and 2001 captain for Steve Spurrier at Florida from 1998-2001, gaining 1,854 rushing yards while becoming the second top receiving running back in the school’s history with 96 catches for 1,091 career yards.
“The best coaching tools we have is competition,” Gillespie said while taking a break at lunchtime the other day. “The addition of Vernard is good. It brought competition and intensity. The addition of Garrison and Buie is good, too. Those guys coming in and wanting to learn and be part of the offense right now pushes the older guys to pay attention.”
These, really, are the smaller backs, part of one set that Holgorsen will use. He also has fullback type backs in Ryan Clarke and Matt Lindamood from last year to block and run goal-line and short yardage.
While Holgorsen believes first in his passing game and sets his running game up off of it, Gillespie isn’t approaching his job as developing a complementary player for the offense out of his running backs.
“We would like a guy we could strap the team on his back and go,” he said.
Is Roberts, Buie or Garrison one of those guys?
“It remains to be seen if that will happen,” Gillespie said. “It’s my job to put them in situations where they can succeed.”
Certainly an offense is tougher to defend if it can hurt you in more ways than one, something West Virginia showed when it had the versatile Pat White at quarterback, able to run or pass, with Steve Slaton ready to break a long gain any time the ball wasn’t in White’s hands.
Put a horse like Owen Schmitt in there, too, to keep the defense honest in the middle and every time you line up you potential for a big gain if you can execute the play without error.
And that is where Gillespie comes into the picture with his young running backs.
He has gotten across to them to play fast and now is trying to make sure they play smart, too.
“They are making mistakes at 100 miles an hour. The worst thing you can do is go out there and play slow. I tell them, ‘If you don’t know where you are going, get somewhere fast.’ Those guys are very smart kids; they are taking notes; they are asking questions. They are saying, ‘If you will give us a chance, we will play.’”
He is coaching them hard at present, trying to get them ready for an opening day that is figuratively scheduled for the day after tomorrow but will arrive before sunrise.
“I’m tough on all guys. Once one guy makes a mistake, no one else should make it. We only have so many reps and it’s my job to make out who gets certain plays,” Gillespie said. “The guys understand we can’t play everyone. Every day is an audition. We’ll sit down and figure out who does what the best, and that’s the guys we’ll focus on.”
The point is that all of them have something uniquely theirs to bring to the table.
“All of the guys do something different. They are all about the same size. Vernard worked really hard to change his body during the off-season. Garrison and Buie just got here but are quick twitch, very fluid out of the backfield catching the ball. Trey Johnson has toughness to him.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @bhertzel.