West Virginia searching for top tailback

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It's early, real early, this spring for West Virginia, which began practice later than any Big East team. But one thing seems pretty clear in the initial going: the Mountaineers have a wide-open competition at running back.

This is something new around these parts, as West Virginia could count on Noel Devine and Steve Slaton before him to claim the ball-carrying load for the past several years. With a new offensive system and different types of backs on the roster this year, though, that position looks uncertain.

"I have not seen that Noel Devine or that Steve Slaton guy," head coach Bill Stewart said. "I have not seen that jump cut. Is it there? We'll see. But I haven't seen it yet."

The most experienced running backs on the team are 230-pound Ryan Clarke, 220-pound Shawne Alston and 235-pound Matt Lindamood. Those aren't the types of runners that Dana Holgorsen is used to using in his spread offense.

"The main back has always been a little quicker, a shiftier guy," Holgorsen said. "Someone who can get involved in the passing game, get the ball out in space and go score."

Kendall Hunter, who ran for more than 1,500 yards under Holgorsen last season at Oklahoma State, was a 200-pounder. He coached smaller, quicker backs at both Houston and Texas Tech before that.

Holgorsen will adapt his offense to his personnel -- see his three-back, diamond formation last season at Oklahoma State -- and West Virginia will be able to throw some serious power looks at teams with Clarke, Austin, Lindamood and even Tyler Urban, who will see some time in the backfield as the tight end is phased out.

But it seems likely that a younger, more fleet-footed tailback will get some opportunities in an offense based on speed.

"A guy like Daquan Hargrett or a Trey Johnson, those guys have got a chance to see the field and touch the ball a lot more than they did last year," Holgorsen said. "That doesn't mean we're giving up on Alston and Clarke."

The Mountaineers will also bring in two shiftier players this summer in highly-regarded running back prospect Andrew Buie, a 190-pounder, and highly-productive Texas high school runner Dustin Garrison, who measures 5-foot-8 and 160. Both could see some action right away, just as Slaton and Devine did as true freshmen.

It might be until the summer, at least, before West Virginia discovers the heir to those former stars.