Bigger backs the future for West Virginia?

December, 1, 2010
12/01/10
6:00
PM ET
Noel Devine will play his final regular-season college game this week, and though it's been a down year for the West Virginia star, it's still worth noting. The senior has run for more than 4,200 yards in his career and provided countless highlights. A foot injury suffered at LSU this year robbed him of adding dozens more clips on that reel -- and us from seeing them.

Devine's Senior Day might also mark the beginning of a new era for the Mountaineers. For years, they've been known for having small, speedy and shifty backs like Devine and Steve Slaton before him. Tavon Austin was anointed by head coach Bill Stewart earlier this season as Devine's eventual heir, and he's built just like his predecessors.

But Stewart's thinking has changed. Lately, with Devine limited, West Virginia has been featuring bigger backs like Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke. And Stewart likes what he sees.

"We need a big back," he said after the Pittsburgh win. "That's how I cut my teeth years ago, with big backs.

"Unless you have a Patrick White or a [Cam] Newton kind of kid ... Geno [Smith] is not that kind of guy. He's more of a passer, a decision-maker. The bigger backs, I'm starting to like more."

Alston is listed at 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds -- more than 40 pounds heavier than Devine. He ran 16 times for 71 yards last week at Pitt and had 75 yards on 17 carries earlier this month against Cincinnati. The Mountaineers have at times paired him in the backfield with Clarke, a 6-foot, 250-pound bruiser who has had some big carries, though he has struggled with fumbles in key situations.

West Virginia has a ready-made Devine clone in Austin, a 5-foot-9, 173-pound speedball. But he has excelled this year at receiver, catching 47 balls for 636 yards and seven touchdowns. He caught two scores at Pitt, including the 71-yard knockout blow in the third quarter.

"He's too valuable out there as a little water bug," Stewart said. "The players say they can't tackle that fellow in a phone booth. He's the quickest little guy."

Austin almost reluctantly moved to wideout this year and said in September that he was eager to get back to tailback next year. But his feelings have changed, and he told Stewart he wants to remain at receiver.

"Running back is still my love, and maybe I'll still get a couple of snaps there," he said. "But I'm a receiver now. I just get out in space more [as a receiver] and don't take too many hits. It's less reps and you don't touch the ball as much, but it's a team game and as long as we win I'm satisfied."

West Virginia will still have the luxury of moving Austin in the backfield or finding creative ways to get him the ball. But watch closely as Devine takes the field Saturday against Rutgers: it might be the end of an era in Morgantown.

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