Alston healthy enough to be more than just a leader
MORGANTOWN - That Shawne Alston heads into the season as the clear leader among West Virginia's running backs should come as little surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the comments he's generated from coaches over the last month.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen praises him as a leader, saying that his is "the loudest voice in the locker room.''
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie can find little fault with just about anything Alston has done.
"He's been catching the ball, pass protecting, communicating and he's a leader to the younger guys,'' Gillespie said. "He's had a great camp. He left camp as the top guy. He just needs to keep his focus and be prepared for the first game.''
Here's the thing, though, about the 5-foot-11, 238-pound senior from Virginia: On only rare occasions during his previous three seasons has any of that translated into great performances on the field. This is the year he wants more than the hundred or so players and coaches at practice to see what he can do.
And for the first time, he just might be healthy enough to do that.
"I think my teammates have seen me as far as practice goes,'' Alston said. "But [the fans], probably not. They probably haven't seen me at the level I can perform at now. They'll get a show September 1st.''
OK, so maybe that sounds like a bit of cockiness. It's not. Yes, Alston is supremely confident in his abilities - "I don't know, maybe it's a flaw,'' he said - but the truth is he's never been healthy enough to really show what he could do. Now that he is, he can't wait.
"I think last year I relied on adrenaline a lot to get me through series,'' Alston said. "But I'm definitely in better shape now.''
The timeline for Alston's career to date reads like a guy who has been ready to break out and annoyingly never got a real chance.
As a true freshman in 2009, he played in just five games and carried only six times. Of course, that was the year Noel Devine was rushing for 1,465 yards and Ryan Clarke emerged as the short-yardage threat, running for eight touchdowns.
As a sophomore, he was bothered by a knee injury and again played in the shadow of Devine and Clarke. He played in all 13 games but averaged just four carries per game and still hadn't scored a college touchdown.
And then, at the end of that season, he injured his neck in a traffic accident and wasn't the same for nine months. He became a bigger part of the offense and scored 12 touchdowns after missing the first two games because of his neck, but didn't even manage 100 carries for the season. Playing in the shadow of Dustin Garrison, Alston was typecast as a short-yardage power back.
"Yeah, I think people put that label on me,'' Alston said. "But if you go out every day worried about people's perceptions of you, that's not good.''
Two things happened last year, though, that helped propel Alston into the role he now finds himself. In a game against Rutgers in a New Jersey snowstorm, he ran for 110 yards - his first 100-yard day. And then, when Garrison was injured, he started the 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, setting a career high for carries with 20.
The Rutgers game in the snow might actually have been a blow of sorts in that Alston was further typecast as a big back who was to be used in situations that called for a bullish runner. But it was also the first time he'd ever carried as many as 14 times in a game, so he did dispel any thoughts that he didn't have the endurance to be an every-down back.
The Orange Bowl further dispelled those doubts. It made the coaches sit up and take notice.
"I think last year they kind of limited me to short-yardage and goal-line situations just because sometimes they wanted to watch how many reps I got and didn't want me to get too banged up,'' Alston said. "But now I think I can be more of an all-around back - getting out of the backfield, blocking, catching passes, all the kinds of things you can do in this offense. The more I can prove I can do those things, the more I'll play.''
Alston is certainly the most physically imposing of West Virginia's backs. Whereas Garrison and Andrew Buie are smaller, shiftier runners, Alston is built like a power back but now is out to prove he's more than just that.
In order to do so, though, he's going to have to keep his weight down. He's listed on the roster at 235 pounds. During the summer and at the start of fall camp he was into the 240s. Ask him if he's still in the 240s, though, and the answer is quick and almost defensive.
"Let's say 238,'' he smiled.
Gillespie wants him to shed a little more, but both he and Alston agree that losing too much weight would change the nature of his game.
"I don't think I'm going to get down to any 220 area,'' Alston said. "That might change my style of running and I think I'm effective where I'm at.''
How effective remains to be seen, at least to the outside world. Alston's teammates and coaches might know what he's capable of doing, but it could be a surprise to anyone else.
"I think I might be able to take it 55 yards in conditions that don't involve snow,'' Alston said.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.