West Virginia running back Ryan Clarke ran for 302 yards last season.
By Michael Sanserino Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Replacing Noel Devine is a daunting task.
Good thing for West Virginia's young running backs, their coach doesn't want them to try.
"I've never said once to those guys 'Be Noel Devine,' " said West Virginia running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "Noel was Noel, and these guys will be who they are. ... That's what we said from day one."
The Mountaineers started their second week of spring practice Wednesday at Mountaineer Field, the next step in a process to develop a ground attack without Devine inspiration.
A graduating senior, Devine led West Virginia in rushing the past three seasons and finished his career with more than 4,300 rushing yards. He led the Mountaineers with 934 rushing yards last season, more than all the other West Virginia running backs combined.
In his place this spring, more than a handful of hopefuls are trying to earn the attention of the coaching staff and some playing time. Complicating things, the running backs are learning a new offense, developed by new offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen.
"They have a long way to go knowing the offense," coach Bill Stewart said. "They're just young kids that we have to bring along."
West Virginia has seven running backs listed on its spring roster, led by junior Ryan Clarke, the Mountaineers' top returning rusher. Other contributors from last season are juniors Shawn Alston and Matt Lindamood and sophomore Trey Johnson.
"We have an idea of guys that can do certain things. Now we just have to figure out who goes in first," Gillespie said. "The great thing about it is we have more practices to go.
"We don't have to make that decision right now. I think that's the part that makes these guys work hard because right now they have a chance to compete and compete to be the guy."
That guy could be a player who saw no action last season. Sophomore Daquan Hargrett has impressed coaches and broke a big run in practice Wednesday morning. And the coaching staff is looking forward to the arrival of two incoming freshmen who were recruited with Holgorsen's offensive system in mind -- Dustin Garrison from Pearland, Texas, and Andrew Buie from Jacksonville, Fla.
"Those guys definitely have the skill set that fit what we do," Gillespie said. "It was fortunate that those are two guys that we handpicked and said 'you fit what we do.' Hopefully, they can come in and learn the system and help us a little bit in some form or fashion."
Perhaps West Virginia's greatest strength at running back is diversity. Clarke, listed at 6 feet, 232 pounds, played fullback the past two seasons. In the new offense, he could be one of two running backs in the huddle, sharing the field with a smaller back such as Hargrett, who is 5-6 and weighs 187 pounds.
"We will fit this offense around what we have," Gillespie said. "That's the great thing about it. We do have a good mixture of backs. ... We can get the ball to different guys in different ways, so it's great to have a variety of different styles of backs."
Gillespie previously coached running backs at Oklahoma State, moving to West Virginia with Holgorsen. While he said his players are not as well-versed in the offensive schemes as some of his pupils were in the past, he enjoys coaching young players with a lot to learn and a lot of ambition.
"They're all hungry," Gillespie said, "and they're all trying to eat up every bit of knowledge they can get."