MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — From the first day teammates saw the new guy sprint, he held the unofficial title of fastest Mountaineer.
And because he was 5-9 on tippy-toes, and had a junior college highlight tape flush with YAC maneuvers, he was typecast in the role of another jitterbug receiver from West Virginia, one who had just been selected No. 8 overall by the St. Louis Rams.
The offensive coaches presumed it. The other skill players presumed it. Even the new guy believed he was meant to be the next Tavon Austin.
Only Mario Alford didn’t fit the mold.
“I was looking at myself as another Tavon Austin, because I played the slot and I felt like I could do the same things that he did. But as time went on I just couldn’t do that.” — Mario Alford
For seven frustrating games, he tried to be the slot receiver everyone expected. And through seven games Alford made a total of nine catches—the same number Austin equaled or surpassed in 14 games. Alford wasn’t confident or productive at inside receiver, and his junior season was shaping up to become a bust.
“With him playing some tailback in junior college, we thought it would be a natural fit to play him in the slot,” said receivers coach Lonnie Galloway. “Obviously we were trying to to force him to play inside.”
Then Galloway and head coach Dana Holgorsen experimented at practice by moving Alford to outside receiver, to a spot typically reserved for the taller guys such as the 6-foot-3 Kevin White and 6-1 Ronald Carswell.
Immediately, Alford felt encouraged.
“At slot I was pretty sluggish, you know, trying to run through the ‘backers,” he said. “But at outside receiver, I’m a straight-running guy. Playing outside’s pretty simple, so I felt more comfortable out there.”
On the eve of the TCU game in Fort Worth, Carswell was suspended for violating a team rule, and Alford was promoted to starter. He was targeted seven times downfield by Clint Trickett and made three receptions for 62 yards. Two of Alford’s catches contributed to touchdown drives as West Virginia won 30-27 in overtime.
The ensuing week, during a 47-40 overtime loss to Texas, Alford scored his first WVU touchdown—this time from Paul Millard—on an electrifying 72-yard catch-and-run. His three-catch day in the gust bowl at Kansas included a 46-yarder, which showed more promise but gave no hint as to the massive performance he would deliver against Iowa State.
In a season finale that evolved into a double-overtime shootout, Alford and Trickett connected eight times for 215 yards. Three of those receptions stretched 30 yards or more, including a 76-yard touchdown on which Alford caught a crossing route against man coverage and jetted through the secondary.
That too-short outside receiver made 18 catches in his four games at the position, averaging 25 yards per grab and regaining the kind of swagger he hadn’t carried since junior college. “I felt like no corner could stick with me.”
As West Virginia finished up three non-contact spring practices this week, coaches sounded convinced Alford could be on the brink of an entire season’s worth of explosive plays despite being undersized for his position.
“What you lack in height you make up in speed and being strong,” Galloway said. “Mario has huge hands and good ball skills.”
Alford sounded relieved just to have the comparisons and the self-imposed pressure behind him.
“I was looking at myself as another Tavon Austin, because I played the slot and I felt like I could do the same things that he did. But as time went on I just couldn’t do that. I realized I can’t compare myself to this guy, that this was all stuff I was putting in my head. I’m my own guy.”