Rushel Shell eyes a hole in West Virginia’s Gold-Blue game Saturday — his first action since transferring from Pitt before the 2013 season. He carried eight times for 37 yards.
Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It's Super Mario's world now.
Mario Alford was never a misfit at West Virginia; he was just miscast. Last season, his first since transferring from Georgia Military College, the blazing quick 5-foot-8 receiver toiled at slot receiver for eight weeks before the coaching staff finally let him fly on the outside.
The result? Alford had 18 receptions for 450 yards and his first two West Virginia touchdowns in the final four games of the season, including a 215-yard receiving game in the season finale against Iowa State.
And Alford clearly hasn't lost his magic touch. He fielded the opening kickoff in Saturday's Gold-Blue game at the 1, found a crease and dashed toward daylight for a 99-yard touchdown scamper.
Senior kicker Michael Molinari later smiled and said, "I let him go," but the West Virginia faithful hopes Alford's electric play might herald the continued emergence of a true playmaker.
Alford and the offense overcame a sluggish start to down the defense, 37-27, according to an arcane scoring system that credited the defense for stops, safeties and sacks.
Now, there's an inherent disagreement in every spring game. In each glorified intra-squad scrimmage, every good play is likely simultaneously countered by an equal and opposite bad play on the other side of the ball.
Still, coach Dana Holgorsen was encouraged with what he saw -- the first-team defense played "excellently," he said, and the offense tore apart the second-team defense.
"We got about what we needed to get done," Holgorsen said.
With senior quarterback Clint Trickett sidelined to recover from shoulder surgery, much of the focus was on the quarterback battle between incumbent backup Paul Millard, junior-college transfer Skyler Howard and Logan Moore, who transferred from Fairmont State last year and spent the 2013 season at wide receiver.
Holgorsen split snaps evenly among the three quarterbacks and there seemed to be very little separation among them. That's good news for now, but Holgorsen expects to narrow down the starting candidates "as quickly as we can" come fall camp.
Trickett will return in the summer and freshman William Crest will join in August.
Millard completed 14 of 19 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns, Howard was 9 of 13 for 70 yards and Moore completed 10 of 21 attempts for 109 yards and rushed three times for 38 yards.
Holgorsen determined last week that the quarterbacks weren't making the progress he wanted, so he stripped them of their no-contact yellow jerseys. The move worked, he said, as the quarterbacks' sense of urgency picked up and the offensive line stepped up, too.
"I thought it was fun," Holgorsen said. "It's fun watching those guys get hit."
Running backs Dustin Garrison and Wendell Smallwood had 10 carries apiece for 47 and 45 yards, respectively. Pitt transfer Rushel Shell rushed eight times for 37 yards and made two catches for 7 yards.
First-year defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said the defense "has a long way to go," but added he was pleased with the early strides. Offensive players lauded the defense's more "unpredictable" nature, as fullback Cody Clay put it.
"We don't know what they're doing half the time," Clay said. "Before, we could figure it out."
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NOTE -- It was announced that the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic between West Virginia and Alabama Aug. 30 will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and be broadcast on ABC.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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