MORGANTOWN — A week or more ago, West Virginia football coach Dana Holgorsen stated that he had reservations about Shawne Alston’s ability to be an every-down back, noting that the way he played the game seemed to bookmark him as a situational player.
Holgorsen’s point was that he was wonderful on the goal line and in short yardage situations, but worked so hard at it and was so physical that he would wear down, even though in the Orange Bowl he seemed to hold himself together pretty well with 77 yards and a pair of touchdowns out of 20 carries.
In fact, the 5-11, 225-pound Virginian openly challenged Holgorsen’s assessment of him.
“Definitely I can be an every down back,” he said in answer to a question as to whether or not he felt himself capable of that. “I would like the chance to prove it.”
With Dustin Garrison, the Mountaineers’ No. 1 running back, recovering from knee surgery and out for the spring, Alston has had the opportunity he wanted ... and he has met it head on like so many linebackers whom he punished while banging his way into the end zone last year.
Holgorsen now is backing off on his assessment.
“Shawne Alston looked as good as I have ever seen him,” Holgorsen said Sunday, following a 72-play scrimmage. “He is hard to tackle. Last spring, we didn’t get anything out of him, camp we didn’t get anything out of him and the first five games of the year, we didn’t get anything out of him.”
The reason was that Alston was recovering from a neck injury, one that had him wondering if he would ever play the game again.
“I went through spring and summer strengthening my neck,” he said, explaining why he had missed spring ball and summer camp. “I came to camp and after four days (the pain) came right back. It was like, when is it going to go away? I’d been strengthening it the way I was supposed to and I guess I lost a little bit of faith then, but the coaches and the players did a good job of keeping my spirits up.”
That was on the field. Off it was a different story.
“You don’t think about it when you are around the fellows much, but when you are home sitting on the couch it’s like, ‘Man, I ain’t practicing.’ You have to have people around you who are encouraging you.”
Slowly, the neck injury improved so that he was ready to go in the second half of the season, and now he is playing as every play might be his last.
“You learn to take nothing for granted,” Alston said.
Holgorsen prefers not having an every-down back, which is why Garrison didn’t fill that role last year as a freshman and why this year he is building depth in the running back spot with Garrison out, Alston making huge strides and sophomore Andrew Buie also showing an ability to run hard and protect the football.
“He is a tough kid. He runs hard, he gets hit hard, he plays hard, he blocks hard and he takes hits, because he plays so hard,” Holgorsen said. “For him to be able to do it for nine straight days has impressed me. I am sure Dustin (Garrison) is watching on the sidelines with some anxiety seeing him get a whole bunch of reps and Shawne (Alston) as well.
“But as we found out last year, you can’t just go into a season with one running back. You need to have a bunch of them. I am sure Dustin (Garrison) is ready to get to August, where he can go out and get some reps as well.”
Buie was a part-time player last year, gaining 172 yards and averaging only 3.4 yards per carry as he acquainted himself with college football.
Buie not only has caught Garrison’s eye, but also Alston’s.
“Buie is running real, real hard and he’s holding onto the ball. When he and a defender collide in the hole you can see the power he exerts on the defender,” Alston said.
In addition to those two, fullback Ryan Clarke is getting a look at the running back spot, too, perhaps as part of a short yardage package, and seems to have corrected the fumbling problem he displayed in practice last year that kept him from being used as a runner.
That competition has lifted Alston to his competitive best.
“I feel like every day is an audition,” he admitted. “You go out and try to compete with the people in the backfield but also try to make them better as you are making yourself better. You have to get better, but the only way you can get better is to work harder, like working up from the bottom of the pile.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.