Shawne Alston, now "The Boss" of the West Virginia backfield, entered last season fearful he might not even keep his scholarship.
The man who recruited him to Morgantown was gone, and the new running backs coach, Robert Gillespie, didn’t exactly swoon over Alston’s freshman and sophomore film — two touchdown-free seasons with virtually no explosive plays.
"I said, ‘This kid probably won’t ever play for us,’" Gillespie admitted Tuesday night.
Fueling the doubts was a whiplash injury that sidelined Alston for spring practice and continued to hamper him into two-a-days. For a plodding, 235-pound back who didn’t seem to suit West Virginia’s uptempo offense, those weeks on the sideline were miserable, spent wondering if Gillespie would ever give him a shot.
"I think he heard that I couldn’t stay healthy, because I didn’t do spring ball," Alston said. "So I’m thinking that I’m really going to show them in fall camp, and then fall camp came around and I practiced like four downs. So I’m like, ‘Oh my God, they’re probably going to take my scholarship.’"
Gillespie’s tone changed once Alston got healthy by midseason. A breakout game in the snow at Rutgers — 110 yards and two scores — was the statistical turning point, but Gillespie had already begun noticing Alston’s intangibles.
"He’s never been the fastest, never been the quickest," Gillespie said. "But he’s a natural-born leader, falls forward after every run, pushes the pile, great in pass protection. So it’s hard to keep a guy like that off the field.
"We found a role for him. He kind of became infectious to the whole team and the whole staff."
Alston wound up leading the Mountaineers with 12 rushing touchdowns, including the game-winners against Cincinnati and Pitt. He capped the season with two more scores on a 20-carry night in the Orange Bowl romp over Clemson — the first start of Alston’s career, made possible by Dustin Garrison’s knee injury.
Eight months later, Garrison remains out indefinitely, and Gillespie calls Alston "hands down the best running back we have."
Part of the allure is Alston’s comprehension of the offense, something he gained by taking mental reps last year when he wasn’t physically participating.
Seven-and-a-half yards deep in the backfield, he has to "see the exact thing the quarterback sees," Gillespie said. "He has to see the safeties moving pre-snap and figure out who he’s blocking. And on his ball carries, he’s making reads."
Alston is proud of his starting role, and even prouder of persevering through the doldrums that sabotage some players’ psyches.
"In high school you’re the man, and then you get up here to college and you have to start back at the bottom of the totem pole," Alson said. That ego crush leads some recruits to transfer and others to quit football altogether. But Alston belonged to another group: "The guys who keep working hard, keep pushing. Even when people may not think you’re good, you know you’re good enough on the inside. You have to stay hungry for what you want to achieve."
He also scoffs at the notion he doesn’t fit the scat-back prototype customary for Dana Holgorsen’s offense.
"At the end of the day it’s just competition," he said. "If you quit on that just because the system is different, you’re probably saying the other guy’s better than you. I think I can run in any system. Sure, I like getting in the pro-style and running power, but outside zone with a cutback lane isn’t that bad.
"I ain’t really too worried about the system. Just go out and play ball — that’s what it’s all about."
Because Gillespie appreciates that Alston’s running style can be bruising or patient, depending on the play, the coach says, "We’re going to ride him as long as we can ride him." As the philosophy goes, Alston’s physical carries might soften up defenses for the quick-strike runs of speedy backup Andrew Buie.
Buie also has enjoyed a stellar camp, according to Gillespie, yet the coach knows the sophomore is an understudy to Alston.
"Get on top of the depth chart — that was the goal," Alston said. "And stay there, that’s the goal now."