By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The other day Robert Gillespie, who serves as coach to West Virginia’s running backs, stood before his team in a meeting room and asked a question.
“Who started the first game last year?” he asked.
Andrew Buie raised his hand.
“OK, who started the last game?” Gillespie asked.
Shawne Alston raised his hand.
He knew, too, in the room was a fellow named Dustin Garrison, who had rushed for 291 yards in a single game as he won the starting job in the middle of the season before a knee injury put him down.
“That is what this season can come to again,” he said. “We don’t know who the starters are going to be, and who is going to finish the season so all of those guys know that we are going to need everyone in that room in order for us to win that championship.”
“That championship,” of course, this season is the Big 12 championship, a rather more difficult assignment than was faced last year in the Big East, but Gillespie does have a stable of running backs who are talented and versatile who can compliment the dynamic passing game upon which the offense is built.
With the championship sitting there as the ultimate goal, there is no place for selfishness or running backs who are out seeking personal glory.
Just do what you are called upon doing, if it is slashing and catching and running with the ball as Garrison and Buie must do, if it power running as Alston does so well, accounting for 12 touchdowns a season ago, or if it is blocking as Ryan Clark’s and Donovan Miles’ roles are, they have to go after it with team success in mind.
“Those guys are just working hard, and they are a very unselfish group. They don’t care who goes out first, because they know that we have a role for each of those guys in that offense,” Gillespie said. “Those guys are going to all play. One guy has got to step up and be that lead dog and be the alpha male and hopefully one of those guys embraces that role.”
That person appears to be Alston, who took charge when Garrison went down last year and went from simply a third-down and goal line back into someone who showed he could play every down if Coach Dana Holgorsen so desired.
He also became something of a spokesperson for the running backs and believes they have a lot in them.
“He can definitely run the ball, but we just have so many playmakers out there. When you have Tavon and Stedman out there, you have to give them the opportunity to make plays. At the same time, we will get our fair amount of carries,” he said.
When you think of what they want out of their key running backs, you think of Joseph Randall, a star at Oklahoma State. In fact, while recruiting Garrison out of Texas, they showed him tape of Randle as an example of what they had in mind for him.
Randle played as a freshman under Holgorsen and last year, as a sophomore, scored 26 touchdowns.
“Joseph Randle was the one guy that could do it all. Right now, we got a few guys who can do different things. Some guys can catch the ball, some guys are short yardage guys, some guys are better pass protectors, so I think that we have got a good mixture of guys in our group,” Gillespie said.
“Adding Dustin back to the mix is definitely exciting for us as a coaching staff, and he is out there working hard. This year will be a lot better. Three true freshmen played last year, and it was tough, but those bumps and bruises that we took, are going to pay dividends this year.”
That’s exactly how quarterback Geno Smith sees it.
“I think it is wide open,” Smith said of his running backs. “I think those guys are going to be the key to our offense as long as they continue to run hard and get those gritty yards. (Andrew) Buie is a big play guy, Dustin (Garrison) is a big play guy, even Shawne (Alston) had a carry for about 60 yards and surprised himself. As long as those guys continue to help us out in the run game and continue to do what is right, run it when we have to and pass it when we have to, I think we will be a good offense.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.