BEHIND SUPER SOPHSTEVE SLATON, THE MOUNTAINEERS ARE CRANKED UP FOR A RUN AT THE NATIONALTITLE
2005 RECORD 11-1(7-0 in Big East)
KEY RETURNEES DTKeilen Dykes (Jr.) Led team in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (eight) S EricWicks (Sr.) Lone returning starter in the secondary had 61 tackles LB KevinMcLee (Sr.) All-conference pick was second on team in tackles (78)
BIG MAN ON CAMPUSWhen offensive line coach Rick Trickett was recruiting quarterback Pat Whitethree years ago, Trickett told his players, "If we get him here, he's goingto win the national championship for us." The 6'2", 190-pound sophomoreis an electrifying runner (7.3 yards per carry last season) whose passingshould benefit from more experience and a better receiving corps than he hadlast year. White has already shown improvement; in the Gold-Blue Game lastspring he completed 23 of 30 passes for 215 yards.
One day duringthe off-season, not long after the Mountaineers had beaten the big, badBulldogs of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, 14 West Virginia players lined up insidethe Caperton Indoor Facility to settle the question, Who's the fastest playeron the team? Sixty yards and six seconds later they had their answer: runningback Steve Slaton. "Not a lot of people," coach Rich Rodriguez says,"can run with that guy."
Despite playingsparingly in the first five games last year as he learned the offense, the5'10" freshman ran for 1,128 yards and 17 touchdowns. He scored sixtouchdowns in a triple-overtime win over Louisville and gashed Georgia for aSugar Bowl-record 204 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 52, 18 and 52yards, as the surprising Mountaineers finished off an 11-1 season and got theiralready-crazed fans thinking national championship in 2006.
Asked what heenjoys most about being a running back, Slaton says, "Embarrassingsomebody. When people try to tackle you and they can't, I like that."
Slaton runs the40 in 4.37, but he is more than a one-dimensional speedball. "He's a fastguy with surprising power," Rodriguez says. In fact, in the spring Slatonwon the Iron Mountaineer Award as the top performer in the winter workoutprogram, and he has added 10 pounds since last season (he's still a svelte 195)to better absorb hits. "The exciting part is that he's still learning theins and outs and some finer points of the offense," Rodriguez adds.
Slaton is not theonly one. Because West Virginia has proved to be so effective at running theball out of the spread (last year the Mountaineers ranked fourth in the countryin rushing offense with 272.4 yards per game), more than 400 high schoolcoaches and 30 Division I staffs descended upon Morgantown in the off-seasontrying to learn a thing or two about the attack.
Any fact-findingmission in Morgantown starts with Slaton and quarterback Pat White, a fellowsophomore who finished second in that 60-yard dash. Their speed makes therunning game difficult to defend, and how they perform could determine whetherthe Mountaineers will play for the national title or fail to meet expectations,as they did two years ago when at least one high-profile analyst picked them toplay for the championship. (West Virginia went 8-4.) "This year is totallydifferent," senior center Dan Mozes says. "We have superstars in Steveand Pat, but those superstars have played for only one year. They're notworried about going to the next level yet. They have their heads in the rightplace."