It is easy to understand why West Virginia fans have gotten accustomed to stability at running back. For the past six seasons, the Mountaineers enjoyed the services of Steve Slaton, then Noel Devine, both All-Big East selections.
Devine graduated in May, and there's no clear-cut heir apparent on the roster. The preseason depth chart lists eight players competing for two positions in coach Dana Holgorsen's spread offense.
Running at the "A" running back slot -- essentially halfback -- are freshmen Vernard Roberts, Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison and sophomore Trey Johnson, the most experienced of the quartet. He registered 15 carries last year for 42 yards.
Holgorsen said Roberts was leading the pack, but that each player had shown flashes of potential.
"[Roberts] is ahead from an overall standpoint," Holgorsen said. "The blocking schemes and pass protection and understanding where to go with the ball, he's ahead for now.
"Buie's probably the quickest twitch guy. He has a great first step and extremely quick twitch. Garrison is a guy that makes people miss at the point of attack."
Sophomore Daquan Hargrett, who was competing for that spot, decided earlier this week to seek a transfer.
At the "B" position, primarily a blocking role, redshirt junior Ryan Clarke enters camp after starting five games at fullback a year ago. Under the new regime, Clarke is competing with redshirt junior Matt Lindamood, senior Ricky Kovatch and junior Shawne Alston for the starting spot.
"With these new coaches, you have to realize that everybody's in a new role, everybody's starting fresh," Clarke said. "You've just got to play hard and try to make a name for yourself."
Holgorsen said Clarke and Alston are two players who could see time at both the "A" and "B" positions.
"We'll find something for [Alston] to do," Holgorsen said Tuesday. "He doesn't have the burst that the other guys do, but that doesn't mean he won't play."
Holgorsen said that by the end of camp, he would like to narrow the field to three ball-carrying backs plus the blocking specialists. With so many players fighting for a starting spot, practice carries might be hard to come by. Lindamood said a popular refrain from running backs coach Robert Gillespie is, "Don't count your reps, make your reps count."
"Coach emphasizes during practice that you're only going to get a couple of reps," Clarke said. "So make sure they're good reps, and you can get on film for the coaches."
Clarke said the biggest difference between Holgorsen's offense and the run-based system employed by former coach Bill Stewart is the amount of pass-blocking from running backs.
"You've got to be real good at pass-blocking because they pass a lot," he said. "People also tend to blitz this offense more because it's so fast."
Even though Holgorsen's offense is known for its explosiveness through the air, his Oklahoma State offensive unit averaged a little more than 174 rushing yards per game last year. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, averaged 160 yards per game on the ground.
"No matter what type of offense you run, when you get into short-yardage situations, you need to have bigger backs blocking," Kovatch said. "You need to pound the ball in there."
Even if it is not immediately evident, the next Slaton or Devine could be somewhere on the Mountaineers depth chart. Slaton, of course, entered his freshman season as the fourth-string running back.
"It's going to be a fun competition to watch," Holgorsen said Wednesday. "We're far from that thing being over."
Correction/Clarification: (Published August 13, 2011) Former West Virginia University running back Noel Devine is no longer with the Philadelphia Eagles. A photo caption Friday incorrectly said he was on the team.