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April 10, 2011

In new offense, WVU backs all get a chance

MORGANTOWN — It is very difficult, upon looking at Ryan Clarke and Daquan Hargrett, to believe they have much of anything in common as running backs.

Clarke seems to be the ultimate third-down back — big, strong and powerful. Hargrett is at the other end of the physical spectrum — short, agile and fleet.

The numbers are Clarke 6-foot, 230; Hargrett 5-6 (maybe), 180.

Yet when Robert Gillespie, WVU’s new running backs coach who had an outstanding career at Florida, looks at them, he sees only that each is a running back.

One may be big, one little, and it matters not to him.

“They will be movable pieces,” he said.

Many offenses, you see, are looking for that one stud back, just as it’s been at West Virginia through Avon Cobourne, Amos Zereoue, Quincy Wilson, Kay-Jay Harris, Quincy Wilson, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine.

Dana Holgorsen’s spread offense would take the ability of any of them and work it into the mix ... but they prefer more of a Heinz 57 approach.

And right now Gillespie has 16 running backs to choose from, a number he admits is too high, but he’s certain they will weed themselves out through the spring and leave him with a group that almost surely will include big backs Clarke, Shawne Alston and Matt Lindamood along with Trey Johnson and Hargrett, who has been the surprise of the spring with the way he keeps shaking loose on long runs.

All have a chance to win the starting job; all will probably play a lot.

“If you wrap it all around one guy and he misses class, misses practice or gets hurt, the offense won’t change [by putting someone else in]. All of these guys will know how to do what the other does, big guy or small guy,” Gillespie said.

“I’m confident putting Ryan Clarke back there to run or block. I’m confident putting Trey Johnson back there to cut the end as much as Lindamood can. He better get his little butt back there and cut that end if he wants to play football and carry the ball.

“I want those guys to understand that, if you get hurt or go out, we’re not going to change the offense. We’ll do what we do.”

That’s fine with them. They feel reborn under this new coaching staff and new offense.

“Bringing new coaches was one of my favorite things,” said Hargrett, who was an afterthought with the former offensive coaches. “I would have loved every once in a while to show what I could do. This gave me an opportunity like coming out of high school to prove myself. It’s like they recruited me and it gives me a chance to play where I thought I should be playing.”

“Coach Gillespie doesn’t really care about the size or the speed. He cares about someone who is going to play hard and do all the little things right,” Clarke added.

“We have so many different backs and that makes it better,” Hargrett said. “We can bring in Ryan and Shawn short yardage. I’m more versatile. It opens the offense and gives everyone a chance to play.”

The competition has been fierce, with some gaining ground, some losing.

Hargrett may have made the biggest move up the depth chart.

“I don’t even know if he can talk. You ask him a question and it’s either this way or this way,” Holgorsen said, nodding and shaking his head, referring to his quiet demeanor.

Clarke, on the other hand, is sliding down the depth chart due to a fumbling problem. He spent both the Friday and Saturday practice running laps after fumbling the ball each day.

“We’re still evaluating him. He’s a guy that can carry the ball and a guy that can block. The better he gets at both those things, the more he’ll play. But if he puts the ball on the ground again he may not play at all,” Holgorsen said.

It’s a crowded backfield, that is for certain.

“Everyone is competing,” Hargrett noted. “That rubs off on me. When Trey breaks a long run, I have to break a long run. When I see Shawne blocking good and Ryan blocking good, it makes me want to get out there and block good.”

This isn’t how it was when Devine was here a year ago, a back who was a Heisman Trophy candidate when the season started but who was sucked up into the decline and fall of the offense.

“Noel was a great back and it would be kind of hard for anyone to start over him,” Clarke said. “Now, everybody has their chance to make their mark and be that back for West Virginia.”

It’s not that Gillespie or Holgorsen don’t want to have that great go-to back. They had it at Oklahoma State and the passing numbers declined some while the running game became far more important.

“At Oklahoma State, we had a stud that stepped out and he was the guy. If you step out and are the lead dog in the pack, then you are the man. But I’m not going to play Steve Slaton more than 40 plays a game. If we play 75 plays, a Slaton will play 40, another guy 20 and another guy 15.”

The “stud” would be Kendall Hunter, who was an All-American in 2008 and again last year. He was short at 5-8 and strong at 200 pounds, sort of the middle man between Hargrett and Clarke.

But while Hunter was the featured back, he was hardly the only back.

“I had an All-American guy I was comfortable pulling off the field,” Gillespie said. “It’s third-and-goal at Texas last year and Kendall Hunter is standing next to me and we’ve got a redshirt freshman in the game. We hand it off to him and he scores.”

That is why he says they are interchangeable. He can go to a jumbo backfield in certain situations or stay with what he has if he wants to keep the tempo going and not give the defense time to catch its breath or its bearings.

“We want to play fast and not slow down and change a whole set,” Gillespie said. “It may be third-and-1 and we might say, ‘Hey, hurry up, let’s go high tempo before the defense gets set,’ and you’ve got to get in there and hit it.

“There are times when we know who we are. We get to the goal line and we want to go big, we’ll do that. But as a whole, I want guys who understand that when we call a short-yardage play, I want to be able to put my hand over my eyes and let that one guy say, ‘Let’s go get it.’”

The idea is, if you earn it, there’s playing time for you.

“I want them to understand, if they work hard and practice, I don’t care who is in the game,” Gillespie said. “Kendall was better not playing 70 snaps a game. It’s a long season. If a guy is carrying 60 or 70 snaps a game and he gets hurt in the third quarter, I don’t want to put someone in there who hasn’t played one snap the entire game. I don’t want to have to shy away from what we want to do.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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