(Updates. With AP Photos.)By JOHN RABYAP Sports Writer
Running back Shawne Alston loves to debate his West Virginia teammates anyplace, anytime.
The senior, whose future plans include attending law school, won’t lose the argument that the Mountaineers’ running game was a bit off in 2011, and the bruising Alston hopes to change that this year.
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Alston will start at one of two running back spots for No. 11 West Virginia when it opens the season at home Saturday against Marshall.
Known for his work in short-yardage and goal-line situations, the 235-pound Alston produced in other circumstances, too, including a solid performance in the 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson.
He hopes to boost a unit that ranked 92nd in the Bowl Subdivision at 123 yards per game.
”I think I’m going to do a good job of changing a lot of minds and people’s perceptions of me,” Alston said.
An unknown to coach Dana Holgorsen at the start of last season due to injury, Alston rebounded to lead the Mountaineers with 12 rushing touchdowns.
Alston ”is probably one of the most vocal guys that we have on the team (and) possesses tremendous leadership skills,” Holgorsen said Monday. ”He’s a senior, had a great camp. I’m looking forward to getting him out there.”
The running game isn’t the mainstay of West Virginia’s pass-happy offense with the focus on quarterback Geno Smith and several solid receivers. Yet the running game is needed to keep defenses on their heels, and that consistency didn’t always come through last year.
Dustin Garrison ran for 291 yards as a freshman against Bowling Green but gained just 451 yards the rest of the year. He injured a knee during practice before the Orange Bowl, missed the game and had surgery.
Alston missed the first two games and eventually got his big chance in the October snow at Rutgers. Alston used his straight-ahead power style to run for a career-high 110 yards and two touchdowns in the 41-31 comeback win.
In the Orange Bowl, Alston ran for a team-high 77 yards rushing and two TDs. For the season, he finished second on the team with 416 yards and won the starting job in preseason camp.
Alston graduated this summer with a degree in criminology and plans to start graduate school next spring. If the NFL doesn’t come calling, he’ll study criminal law and looks forward to the day he can take the courtroom floor as a prosecutor, a criminal defense lawyer or working with juveniles.
He’s had plenty of time talking it up with his teammates.
”Oh yeah, I’m a great debater,” Alston said. ”Anytime anything’s going on around my team, they come ask me questions or just different things – I’m really, really good at debating.”
There’s no doubt that West Virginia could use a few more proven bodies in the backfield. Besides Alston and Garrison, no other rusher had more than 200 yards last year.
”People tend to overlook the running game,” Alston said. ”I think we did, I’m not going to say, a good job. An average job. But that’s something we’ve just got to grow on.”
While much of the work for the running backs in West Virginia’s offense involves blocking and pass protection, ”it’s our job to make the running game work,” Alston said. ”Because if the running game don’t work, then the coaches are going to go away from it.”
And Alston isn’t about to let that happen.
”I came to camp this year and did a good job showing the coaches that I can be an every-down back,” he said.
Andrew Buie is listed as Alston’s backup with Garrison at No. 3. Ryan Clarke, who didn’t have a carry last year, and converted linebacker Donovan Miles are listed at the other running back slot.
Holgorsen said no decision has been made on how much playing time Garrison will get. The coach does want to have four running backs ready to play.
”We do need that (extra) body,” he said. ”Running back is probably the hardest position to play in college football. Those guys take a pounding. We ask them to do so many things.”
Alston will get his share of requests, and he’s ready for them.
”I feel very confident,” he said. ”We have a very electrifying backfield. I feel the sky’s the limit. We have the opportunity to go out there and show people what we can do.”