First, I must apologize for falling behind on these previews. I had promised one every Friday leading up to the season kickoff on Sept. 5 vs. Liberty.
But an Italian vacation interceded and forced me to miss the past two Fridays, so now I'm catching up.
It's worth noting that, while wearing a West Virginia shirt atop the Spanish Steps in Rome, a man came up behind me and said, "Let's go, Mountaineers!"
Turned out, he and his family were from Beckley, W.Va., and vacationing in Rome, as well. We're everywhere.
So, moving on. I decided to do these previews like the new Oscars, not the old Oscars, where they saved Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and the the other biggies 'til the end, making viewers sit through three hours of Best Animated Short and so on.
My first preview was the offensive line. Instead of following it with the defensive line or the special teams, today, I'll toss you a little sugar: the running backs.
Start with what you know: WVU has one of the nation's top running backs in Noel Devine returning. In his two seasons at WVU, he has answered all the questions anyone had about him:
- Is he a troublemaker? No.
- Is he reliable? Yes.
- Can he stay in school? Yes.
- Will he keep listening to Deion Sanders? No.
- Is he too little to be an every-down back? No.
- Was he overhyped coming out of high school? No.
- He already has two kids...will he have a third? Yes.
- Does he have a fabulous gold grill? Yes.
Coach Stewart and the others have said that Devine is finally understanding how to be a running back in the WVU system, not just a runner. He accumulated more than 1,200 yards last season but, as a friend said, it was the quietest 1,200 yards ever.
That is at least partly because he scored only four touchdowns, down from six his freshman season. Also, he was inconsistent: 207 yards vs. Auburn, 27 vs. Pitt.
So this season, Devine is the unquestioned feature back, the quarterback will not take as many rushing yards from him as Pat White did last season and he's three years in the system and should know it. It's a promising combination.
No discussion of WVU's running backs after last season can proceed very far without mentioning the phrase "third-down short yardage." WVU was atrocious at it last year and it cost the team at least a couple of victories.
When the team becomes so desperate on short yardage it brings in its *backup quarterback* as the big back, you know things are bad.
Fullback/H-back Will Johnson was injured most of the season but, watching him play when he did, I'm not convinced he's a short-yardage pounder. He's more of a catch-a-pass-out-of-the-backfield guy.
So the coaches made that Priority 1 in the off-season and spring. They came up with Ryan Clarke, a 6-foot, 228-pound redshirt freshman.
Clarke is fast (4.5 40) but coaches are counting on him to protect quarterback Jarrett Brown and pick up tough, crucial third-down yards.
Speedy Mark Rodgers established himself last season as Devine's capable backup. He's Devine-sized (5-9, 179) and Devine-quick, as well. He showed a knack for hitting holes. Expect him to be the first off the bench to spell Devine this season, unless and until suspended running back/slotback Jock Sanders is cleared to play by Stewart, following a DUI charge.
Sanders's natural position is slot on this team, but his boneheaded move in the offseason opened the slot position and coaches responded with the unorthodox experiment of putting 6-foot-8 Wes Lyons in the slot, who knocked everyone's socks off in the spring.
So that should be a lesson to Sanders. Still, the team would like Sanders to back up Devine if needed.
WVU also has a few of promising freshman running backs coming this fall.
The first is Tavon Austin, a Devine-sized back from Baltimore, who was twice Maryland offensive player of the year.
Coaches are envisioning this cutback king at slot and returning kickoffs and punts almost immediately, but he could see some work at running back, as well. Watch his videos on YouTube; he's like lightning.
The second is Shawne Alston, a 6-foot, 222-pound sprinter who could find his way into the Devine back-up mix.
Rounding things out is a pair of hardheaded freshman fullbacks: The comically named Christopher Snook (with a name like that, you pretty much have to be a fullback) and the Hall-of-Fame named Branko Busick, son of WWF wrestler, Big Bully Busick.
Both fullbacks are already over 6 feet and 215 pounds. One likely will end up at fullback, but it's nice to know there's a potential Owen Schmitt in the wings.
So, to recap: WVU has only one experienced running back assured to be eligible to play on Sept. 5...Devine. So that looks bad.
On the other hand, in addition to Devine, it has a game-tested backup in Rodgers, what looks like a fullback solution in Clarke and tons of talent on the way in. And, if Sanders makes it back, another experienced back. It's hard not to be optimistic.