Shawne Alston has one of those stories that, much like him, rumbled along with a few twists and turns, remarkable mostly in hindsight.
A punishing running back out of high school, his size dictated he would be a short-yardage specialist for West Virginia until injuries and a lack of playing time put his career in question.
Today, Alston, will start at tailback for the Mountaineers in the team's noon opener against Marshall.
- Matchup: No. 11 West Virginia vs. Marshall, noon today, Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va. The Mountaineers are 25-point favorites.
- TV, Radio: FX; Mountaineer Sports Network, Sirius Channel 91.
- West Virginia: Is 11-0 in the series and beat Marshall, 34-13, last year in a lightning-shortened contest. ... QB Geno Smith, an early Heisman candidate, passed for a school-record 4,385 yards last season. ... His top playmakers: WR Tavon Austin and WR Stedman Bailey. ... Several true freshmen are expected to play, including starting WR Jordan Thompson and FS Karl Joseph.
- Marshall: Was 7-6 last year. ... Led by QB Rakeem Cato and WR Aaron Dobson, who will test the Mountaineers defense. ... Expected to run an up-tempo offense. ... Ranked No. 5 in tackles for loss (7.58 per game) in '11, but lost sack star Vinny Curry.
- Hidden stat: West Virginia has outscored Marshall, 451-129, in 11 meetings.
His position coach calls the 5-foot-11, 235-pound senior a "deceptive" and "patient" runner . Furthermore, Alston is one of the few players the coaching staff seems comfortable about when talking about expectations.
"He's a guy who is a natural born leader," said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "It's hard to take a guy like that off the field. He became infectious to the whole team, the whole staff and he's continued to get better. Right now, hands down, he's the best running back we have.
"I'm expecting a big year out of him."
Alston just leans back and smiles when he hears that. It has been long journey, one he worried might end along the way.
Hampered by injuries and a lack of early playing time, he had to work hard to impress a new coaching staff last year. He struggled in 2010 with a knee injury, then missed spring football in '11 because of a neck injury from a car crash. After that, he was sidelined again in preseason. He worried the new staff considered him injury-prone and might be done with him.
"It was sort of hard for me because I'm thinking, man, I'm never going to play here," said Alston. "I didn't do spring ball and then I'm like 'I'll show 'em in fall camp.' Then, fall camp came around [and] I practiced maybe four downs and I'm like 'Oh my God. They're probably going to take my scholarship.'
"I didn't know what was going to go on. I don't know what they saw in me, but they definitely stuck beside me."
When Alston finally played last year -- his first game was at Maryland -- he showed he could also carry the ball well. By the end of the season, he was the team's touchdown leader with 12 and had rushed for 416 yards on 97 carries. What coaches saw was a player who was always involved, whether he was in the game or not. They saw a player who could run-block, pass-protect, get open in routes -- a back who fell forward and moved the pile every chance he got.
As Gillespie described it, he is like a second quarterback.
"He's playing the game just like a quarterback. He's the deepest guy on the offense. He's 71/2 yards deep, so he has to see the exact things the quarterback sees," said Gillespie.
"He has to see guys moving, safeties moving pre-snap to figure out who he's blocking. On his ball carries, he's making pre-snap reads and reading shades and fronts."
Dustin Garrison, the team's leading rusher last year, is questionable as he tries to return from major knee surgery. That may have helped Alston reach the top of the depth chart, but it's certainly not the main reason he landed there.
"Some see him as just a big bruiser, but he's a patient runner. He's very deceptive, he understands pad leverage. He understands things the big guys do," said Gillespie. "He's different than any of the other guys I have right now."
And Alston is ready to prove it.
"I don't need anybody to tell me I'm doing good," said Alston. "It's just getting on top of the depth chart. And staying there. That's the goal."