Noel Devine has left West Virginia, but the Mountaineers are arguably in a better place at running back headed into this season.
True freshmen Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison and Vernard Roberts have turned heads throughout fall training camp. They, along with sophomore Trey Johnson, have been locked in such a heated competition that coach Dana Holgorsen has been mum about who will start and how he will rotate his players in the opener Sunday against Marshall.
Holgorsen says all four, along with three bigger fullbacks will play – giving West Virginia seven players they want to get into the game. But who is going to emerge from a group that has so much talent?
“I hope they’re talented,” Holgorsen joked earlier this week. “It’s hard to get seven of them the ball … three will be bigger fullback-type of guys. We can use those guys in a variety of ways from fullback to tight end to wing guys to try to create some leverage and create some gaps where we can get the ball down the field. Whichever one of those skill guys get the hot hand is what we'll try to go with.”
Roberts enrolled in school early and was in for spring, so he had a bit of an advantage over Buie and Garrison. But Buie and Garrison quickly caught up and have been the talk of preseason practice. None of the three is particularly big. Roberts is 5-foot-9, 184 pounds; Buie is 5-9, 191 pounds and Garrison is 5-8, 164 pounds.
But they are all different. Roberts has been praised for having good vision and being able to play low to the ground. Holgorsen has said Buie is “probably the quickest twitch guy, great first step.” As for Garrison, he can make people miss at the point of attack. “Kendall Hunter last year was the best I've seen at that,” Holgorsen said. “I’m not comparing Dustin to Kendall Hunter. I'm just saying it doesn't have to be blocked to get yards.”
The transition from high school to college football has been a bit tough for Roberts, Buie and Garrison, especially since all three are competing against each other for playing time. Garrison said when they first met each other, there was not much conversation.
But now, they have loosened up and get along well.
“At first it was strictly competition,” Garrison said in a phone interview. “We just wanted to go out there and prove to coach we have what it takes to get the job done. After a while, we started lightening up and got to know each other a little bit more. That's helped us out a lot, being able to talk to each other. It’s more like a brotherhood. Me, Vernard, and Buie are like best friends pretty much.”
What brought all three to Morgantown was the opportunity to start right away with Devine gone. Buie spoke for himself and Garrison when he said, “Since I was a kid, it was always something I talked about, playing right away when the opportunity presented itself. I’m glad it actually happened.”
Many people know that the Holgorsen offense is built around the quarterbacks and receivers. But there is plenty for the running back to do. For example, Hunter rushed for 1,548 yards and 16 touchdowns last season at Oklahoma State. West Virginia has had its share of prolific backs in a spread-type system under Rich Rodriguez as well. Devine left the school as the leader in all-purpose yards with 5,761.
Aside from running the ball, the backs are going to be expected to block for Geno Smith and catch passes out of the backfield.
“Anybody can run the ball,” Garrison said. “But it's going to be those backs that can protect Geno and catch the ball in the open, those are going to be the guys who can play.”