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.''