Last season was a strange one for the West Virginia running game. Of course, with Dana Holgorsen coming to Morgantown, everyone expected big things from the passing game, but the rushing offense was a bit of a mystery.
As a whole, it would be hard to consider the rush attack much of a success. For the season, WVU was just 92nd in the country with 122.9 yards per game. That total was even helped in the bowl game when the Mountaineers earned 188 yards on the ground.
Yet, the running backs flashed signs of serious potential. Against Bowling Green in the fifth game of the season, WVU ran for 360 yards, 291 of which came from Dustin Garrison. So, what can we expect from this unit in 2012? If the first six practices of spring are any indication, it would seem that West Virginia's running game is on the rise.
"I definitely have a lot of confidence in the run game," said Shawne Alston. "(Andrew) Buie's evolving into a better player, Ryan Clarke is getting a couple carries back there, myself also, Dustin's rehabbing but he'll be back in the fall, so the run game is definitely going to be effective and a great part of the offense this year."
Alston was second on the team last season with 416 yards. He only trailed Garrison, who earned 742 yards. The two backs help provide a balanced attack of speed and power for the Mountaineers, Alston being the power back and Garrison being a quicker option.
"It definitely helps a lot," said Alston. "The more versatile you can be, just the different weapons the defense has to try to defend against. So to be versatile is always a good thing."
Unfortunately, Garrison will not be able to participate in spring practices due to a torn ACL. He should be ready to go for the season, though. His injury has also allowed Buie and Clarke to see an increase in carries, and they are both taking full advantage of that opportunity.
"(Buie's) been doing an excellent job," said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "He's definitely matured. You can see that the offseason program has definitely helped, but he's a very mature, focused kid. These extra reps that he's getting are paying dividends, so hopefully this week will give him a chance to heal up a little bit because he's gotten a few more reps in camp, but he's been doing a great job so far. Great attitude, great work ethic, so hopefully he can continue that going into the next six or seven practices."
Alston has seen improvement in Buie's game, as well. As a freshman, Buie earned 172 yards, but he played one of his best games of the season against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. He's taking the momentum from that game and putting it toward a productive spring.
"His second level cuts have gotten a lot better," Alston said of Buie, "he's breaking a lot more runs, and just some reads that he may not have seen last year just because the system might have been a little fast for him. I just think he's made a lot of improvements and that just speaks for all the work he put in during the offseason."
Clarke stopped seeing carries last season, partially due to a problem with fumbles in spring practices. He didn't see a single carry during the year, but he has proven himself as a running threat in the past. In his first two seasons, he earned a total of 541 yards. He spent the 2011 season exclusively as a blocker, but that could change in 2012.
"That's one of the first things I stressed when I met him," Gillespie said. "I said, ‘Hey, here's the deal, we need you to be a blocker first, and if you do these things and buy into it, then the opportunity will come later down the line for you to carry the ball.' It was tough in the beginning, but I think he really bought into it, has had a great attitude throughout the whole year, and this spring, the situation came up that we need him to carry the ball. So far, he's doing a really good job. He's taking pride in being a ball carrier now."
That could give West Virginia four legitimate threats at running back going into this season. Not only are the players improving with experience, but they're becoming more comfortable in their second year under Holgorsen.
"We're very familiar with the system," said Alston, "and two years in the system, that just improves us as backs because last year was our first year in the system, so we were just like the freshmen coming in per se, but we're able to evolve and just become better backs and better leaders."
Last season, the running game had trouble in its first season under Holgorsen. But this season, with another year's experience and a chance at having some real depth, West Virginia running backs could play a much bigger role in the team's offense.