A year ago, Alston wasn't a first-level option in the Mountaineer rushing attack. The WVU coaching staff was clearly looking for speed in the backfield, and while Alston has the ability to burst out for a big gain, he was more likely to run though tackles and grind out a few extra yards. However, as the season went along, and injuries and inconsistency plagued his teammates, Alston made the most of his chance, gaining 416 yards on 97 carries while recording 12 rushing touchdowns. Alston certainly wasn't injury-free either, as a neck problem from a car accident and a leg issue that required wrappings akin to World War I-era Tommie leggings slowed him to some degree. However, he fought through those issues to become West Virginia's most consistent runner in 2011.
Fast forward to the fall of 2012, and a healthier Alston has seized the reins in the backfield. According to running backs coach Robert Gillespie, Alston has improved across the board, and is the clear winner of the running back competition in camp. While his emergence has answered one question, there are still more to be answered, especially at the backup positions.
The first option, Dustin Garrison, was watched closely by the coaches during fall camp, and while he professed to be "almost 100%" during contact work, it's clear that there is some concern about his readiness to play. Gillespie said the coaching staff would evaluate Garrison early this week, discuss his progress with the athletic training staff, and make a decision about a possible redshirt. If Garrison is cleared to play, he will certainly get carries and a good bit of work, but if the decision is made to redshirt him, then the field is wide open for others to enter the competition.
One of those players is sophomore Andrew Buie. The starter at the beginning of 2011, Buie took some big hits and lost his job to Garrison, but then reemerged with 45 rushing yards and another 32 receiving markers in place of Garrison against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. That performance, which included a whirling spin off a Clemson tackle attempt early in the game, showed that Buie is capable of playing on the big stage.
"I just go out every day and try to compete and get better," Buie said of the battle to earn playing time. "At the end of the day, you just have to do that and then leave the decision up to the coaches as to who goes out there."
Another player fighting to get on the field is Torry Clayton, a true freshman who has admitted to some early struggles with the blocking scheme. However, his improvement in that area has been noticeable, and he is certainly a candidate for time, especially if Garrison redshirts.
"I think I have done pretty well, but it could have been better," Clayton said. "There's a lot of room for improvement. I am going to keep getting better. I need to just play my role. I would rather play, but if I'm not ready, I will take the redshirt."
Buie believes he is much improved since his freshman year, citing improvements in his strength and understanding of the offensive system as areas of importance. Clayton, despite his short time in the program (he arrived early for the summer sessions), also thinks he is getting the hang of the system.
"The fast pace of the offense and the blocking were the toughest parts of the transition," he listed. "Picking up the blocking schemes is the toughest thing for me. In high school you just block the man inside you. In college you have a lot more keys to read. Coach Gillespie tells me you aren't going to play if you don't block. I take that seriously. We didn't do any no-huddle or hurry up in high school, but over the summer with the team doing 7-on-7, I kind of adjusted to it. You have to make quicker reads. You can't do sidesteps -- you have to get north and south."
With camp out of the way, there are only a few days left to impress the coaches before decisions must be made as to who to prepare for the season opener. WVU's assistants maintain that, for the most part, they can only get two players ready to play at each position for any given game. Of course, there are exceptions, and there will certainly be at least three backs ready to carry the ball on Sept. 1, but identifying a clear backup and getting him prepared remains a key decision. Buie is looking forward to that, and thinks the excitement of the approaching season helps in practice.
"It's definitely more exciting preparing for the opposite team than going against your own guys," he said of the motivation on the practice field.
Odds are that Buie will get another chance to prove himself as the primary backup if Garrison is held out, in which case Clayton might be the dark horse to watch as a third option. If Garrison plays, however, a totally different dynamic comes into play. If he's healthy and doesn't show any ill effects from playing, that likely has a domino effect that could push Clayton into a redshirt for the year. Either way, however, Gillespie and head coach Dana Holgorsen appear to have at least a few more options than they did a year ago.