West Virginia Football: Analyzing the Mountaineers' Running Back Situation
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Since Dana Holgorsen’s arrival in Morgantown back in December, most of the focus and discussion surrounding the West Virginia offense has been about the rejuvenation of the passing game.
Holgorsen’s Air Raid passing philosophy should do wonders for a unit that ranked 67th in the country in total passing offense last year. And it should also help talented QB Geno Smith continue to develop into one of college football's premier passers.
Holgorsens’s offense at Oklahoma State ranked second in the country with 345 passing yards per game in 2010 and it helped turn WR Justin Blackmon and QB Brandon Weeden from relative unknowns into household names.
With all of the talk revolving around the much anticipated high-flying passing attack, it seems as if some fans are getting so amped up that they’re conveniently forgetting the fact that RB Noel Devine, the school’s third all time leading rusher, will never carry the ball for the Mountaineers again.
After four highly productive and exciting seasons, Devine’s departure now leaves a huge void in the backfield, which certainly won’t be easy to fill.
Since West Virginia lacks a go-to option to takeover at running back, it appears that the duty of replacing Devine won’t fall squarely on just one player’s shoulders.
Everything we heard from the coaching staff in the spring indicated that a running back by committee approach is the most likely method for at least this season.
It makes sense considering there are a number of intriguing backs with different skill sets, but no proven standout among the bunch.
The two most experienced rushers going into the season are juniors Ryan Clarke and Shawne Alston.
The 6’0’’, 230-pound Clarke has made his living as the bigger change of pace back these past two seasons, rushing for a combined 541 yards and 16 scores on only 140 carries.
Alston, who possesses similar size at 5’11’’, 220-pounds, hasn’t received the same amount of touches as Clarke, but he’s shown flashes of his potential the few times he's been given the chance to run the ball.
The problem for Clarke and Alston is that neither of them was overly impressive this spring and judging from the most recent public depth chart, Holgorsen must have taken notice.
True freshman Vernard Roberts, a three star recruit out of Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., worked his way into the starting A-Back position after arriving at school early and wowing the coaching staff with his consistency in the spring.
At the B-Back position, unlikely underdog Matt Lindamood, a junior who only carried the ball 15 times in 2010, muscled his way to the top of the depth chart but it remains to be seen if that’s where he’ll stay when the season starts in September.
Roberts and Lindamood both enjoyed great spring sessions and they were rewarded for their performances by being placed atop the depth chart heading into the summer. But the competition for carries is really only just beginning.
Two almost forgotten about sophomores, Daquan Hargrett and Trey Johnson, are each capable of contributing, even though neither has the production to back it up.
Hargrett, who is only 5’6’’, didn’t get many opportunities as a freshman but he does have rare quickness and he appeared to be a perfect fit for West Virginia’s old zone read attack, so it should be interesting to see how well he can adapt to the new offensive system.
As if those six weren’t enough, West Virginia will also welcome two talented running back recruits to the mix once camp opens up in August.
The name everyone seems to be talking about is Andrew Buie.
Buie, a 4-star recruit out of Trinity Christian High School in Jacksonville, is one of the most decorated prospects of West Virginia’s 2011 class.
The 5’9’’ 190-pound freshman-to-be was rated as one of the top running backs in the South and he had scholarship offers from the likes of Auburn, Michigan and Tennessee.
Buie’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield should endear him to Holgorsen and it very well could be the reason he sees the field early.
The other freshman running back that could make an impact is Dustin Garrison out of Pearland High School in Texas.
Although he hasn’t received the same type of publicity or fanfare as Buie, Garrison definitely has some valuable qualities that the coaching staff should like.
Garrison’s lack of size will hurt him, but if he does a good job packing on a few pounds this summer, he should, at the very least, be able to contend for a few carries this year.
Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s not forget about Tavon Austin.
Austin, the offense’s most dynamic player, was expected to be Devine’s heir apparent at running back but that was before he started flourishing at wide receiver.
After two seasons, the junior star-in-the-making certainly looks comfortable at his new position.
Still, it wouldn't be shocking to see him get a touch or two out of the backfield every now and then.
Last year, Austin averaged 10.6 yards on 15 carries.
Needless to say, it’s going to be a crowded backfield this season.
The depth is there, that’s obvious. However, we’ll have to wait and see if any of the many candidates can step up and separate from the pack to become the guy like Noel Devine was.
We know that there’s room for talented running backs to shine in Holgorsen’s scheme. All you have to do is look at Kendall Hunter’s 1,594 rushing yards at Oklahoma State last year to see that.
Everyone may expect Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and company to carry the offense this season, but if the Mountaineers really have hopes of winning the Big East, they're going to need a consistent complementary running game to balance things out.
There are plenty of bodies to put in the backfield, but only time will tell if any of them can be the true difference maker that the offense needs.
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