MORGANTOWN - For years West Virginia University football was known for its speed rushing attack featuring the names of players like Avon Cobourne, Quincy Wilson, Steve Slaton, Noel Devine and even quarterback Pat White.
Season after season-well at least from 2000-09-the Mountaineers were ranked among the top running offenses in the country. But for the past two seasons, WVU's running attack has failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher and the team's 1,595 yards on the ground in 2011 ranks behind Slaton's 1,744 in 2006 and Cobourne's 1,710 in 2002.
Only twice did a running back eclipse the 100-yard mark. Then-junior Shawne Alston accomplished the feat in WVU's 41-31 come-from-behind victory at Rutgers, finishing with 110 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries, while true freshman Dustin Garrison compiled 291 yards and scored two touchdowns on 32 attempts in the Mountaineers' 55-10 blowout of Bowling Green.
However, the lack of a strong running game has been overshadowed by the emergence of quarterback Geno Smith and his star receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. But if the old gold and blue hopes to have the success in its new conference, the Big 12, they in enjoyed in its previous home, the Big East, then developing a strong running game will be a must.
The good news for fans is that both Alston, who had 77 yards and scored two touchdowns in WVU's 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and Garrison return as well as an offensive front that brings back starters Joe Madsen and Jeff Braun and Parkersburg native Josh Jenkins, who missed the 2011 season recovering from knee surgery.
"We understand what we need to do this year," explained Alston. "We (the running backs) are doing very good. Me, (Andrew) Buie, (Ryan) Clark, Donovan (Miles), Dustin (Garrison) are starting to get more reps and also Torry (Clayton), he is looking pretty good too.
"We are going to have a good rotation going on right now, and I think we need to get better at it every day that we come out to play."
Garrison, who led the team with 742 yards and six touchdowns on 136 attempts, missed the Mountaineers' bowl game, as well as spring drills, with a knee injury he suffered just days prior to WVU taking on the Tigers.
Alston finished with 416 yards and 12 touchdowns on 97 carries while Austin was the team's third leading rusher, finishing with 182 yards on 16 attempts. Buie contributed 172 yards on 51 carries.
"We are starting to develop a little bit of depth," explained running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "All of the guys here, besides the newcomers, have gotten reps before. We could still use a few more guys, because it is going to be a long season and a bigger grind this year."
Not only will the running backs be asked to contribute more yards to the offense's attack, but they will need to protect Smith more as defenses scheme to slow down the Mountaineers' record-setting quarterback.
"The willingness for those guys to do it (pass block) has always been there," continued Gillespie. "The fundamentals are also getting a lot better. Our defense is doing a really good job in giving us a lot of different looks to protect against. We will be prepared for anything that we see in the Big 12 this year."
And, Mountaineer fans will be waiting to see if the once dominant running game returns to Milan Puskar Stadium in 2012.