By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A year ago Andrew Buie was a raw, freshman back who found himself thrown to the wolves early in the season.
This year he has become one of the wolves.
No longer shy, timid and trying to feel his way into college football, Buie has emerged as a force on offense, a running back who combines speed and power, a pass receiver who runs precise routes and has soft hands, and a blocker about whom there is nothing soft.
In fact, even though he rushed for 31 yards against James Madison after rushing for 80 on six carries against Marshall and caught five passes for 90 yards against JMU, the coaching staff named him Offensive Player of the Week for his blocking.
On a day when the offensive line struggled, he became the personal protector of Geno Smith and helped keep him from taking any sacks while unleashing a lethal downfield block that sprang receiver Stedman Bailey down the sideline for one of his three touchdowns.
It’s hard to imagine this coming from the running back who came out of Jacksonville, Fla., and got the starting running job nod by default early in the 2011 season, only to have it slip away.
He rushed for 30 yards on 15 carries in the opener last year, then had 16 carries over the next seven games and 19 carries over the next 11 games heading into the Orange Bowl.
That’s not an easy situation for a true freshman back who had been nothing but a star to handle, but he got through it with the help of running back coach Robert Gillespie.
“There were times we had a sidebar or two to make sure my head was good,” Buie admitted. “It is hard to stay focused when you go from playing to hardly seeing any snaps, but I was able to make it through, and I’m glad I was.”
And what was Gillespie’s approach?
“You make them understand they are young and we’re not giving up on them,” he explained. “You tell them we know you are going to get better.”
By nature, coaching is correcting mistakes, and that means much you do is critical, and that makes it tough when you have to raise their spirits.
“You break them down so much, but you also have to build them up,” Gillespie said. “It starts with the relationship you have with the kids … the relationship on the field and away from the field. You build a trust in them, and then everything works together.”
Gillespie instilled this attitude in Buie that as a freshman the present isn’t as important as the future.
“You can’t just look at the situation as right now,” Buie said, explaining how he came to look at things. “Sometimes you have to look ahead. The stuff you want to accomplish before you go can’t come all at once. Every day won’t be perfect.”
And so he stayed with it, absorbing the lesson that head coach Dana Holgorsen has preached from the moment he walked into the Puskar Center, and that is a team-first, do-what-it-takes-to-win attitude will reap the ultimate rewards.
Hence, here you find a kid like Buie laying blocks on people far bigger than himself that seem to shake the very foundation of the stadium.
“He had five knockdowns, so he is becoming more versatile,” Holgorsen said of Buie. “What you guys see is a guy that catches the balls on the flats, but from a protection standpoint and from a run-blocking standpoint, he’s a powerful kid that puts his body in danger sometimes because he plays so hard and plays so physical.
“He ran the ball well. He did a great job on punt return, and he knocked five or six guys down throughout the course of the game. From a receiver standpoint, he looked good, so a guy that does that many things is a guy who will get rewarded.”
Buie understands this and actually enjoys the blocking aspect of the job, something that many backs throughout history saw as nothing more than an annoyance and detriment to their own offensive statistics.
“You have to take pride in blocking for other guys because I want them to be blocking for me,” he said. “You need each other to make big plays, and if no one blocks for each other, we won’t have any offense.
“Blocking is fun,” he continued. “It’s fun to see other teammates make big plays off your blocks. It feels good to be part of a play where you didn’t actually have the ball but did something to spring a big play.”
Then there is the matter of catching passes out of the backfield, one of which was a masterful 30-yard completion from Smith as he ran down the sideline closely covered.
“That catch he made down the sidelines was a spectacular catch … but Geno couldn’t have thrown it any better. It was a perfect pass,” said Gillespie. “The concentration it took, the confidence we have in him as a staff and Geno putting it in the air shows that he’s growing as a pass receiver.”
Buie modestly accepts plaudits for the catch, passing off the credit.
“That play was pretty much all Geno. I just had to be in the right spot to catch it,” he said.
Blocking, pass catching and running … he is a solid fit in the Holgorsen offense.
“It’s very valuable to have a guy that can do all of that stuff,” Holgorsen said. “Shawne (Alston) is a little limited in the pass game from a receiving standpoint because he is a bigger, physical kind of guy. That is probably why we’ve always had guys like Buie, because they can do all of that stuff.
“Shawne is our starter, and Shawne is a great player, but you need a variety of people. From a running back standpoint, we’re recruiting a bunch of different body types because each of them can bring a different thing to the table.”
It’s almost, someone suggested to Gillespie, like Alston and Buie are “Thunder and Lightning” on the field.
“I don’t know about ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ It’s Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie. I don’t know we’ve done anything to earn a nickname,” he said. “Both those guys are doing exactly what we’re asking them to do and sometimes have gone above and beyond, so that’s good.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.