MORGANTOWN - Shawne Alston's road to the top of the depth chart was a familiar one for West Virginians: Long, a little bumpy, with lots of twists and turns.
Alston was an absolute beast at Phoebus High School in Virginia, wh-ere he rushed for 2,278 yards and 34 touchdowns during a senior season in which his team was so good, he rarely played in the fourth quarter.
The Newport Daily News Press thought so much of Alston, just the second player in the Peninsula District to ever rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, it named him its Offensive Player of the Year.
College coaches were impressed, too. Penn State, Maryland, Illinois, East Carolina and West Virginia all came with offers. He chose West Virginia in part because his recruiting coach, as well as his position coach at WVU, Chris Beatty, had a track record of success with guys from the Hampton, Va., area. The Mountaineers also had a need because Noel Devine was about to enter his junior season and there weren't a lot of options behind him, particularly in short-yardage situations.
Alston figured he'd take Morgantown by storm. After all, it had been a long time since anyone stopped him.
Beatty suggested to Alston he might have a chance to become the punisher to Devine's finesse running right away.
And then ... nothing.
He totaled six carries and gained 18 yards his freshman season in mop-up duty while Ryan Clarke was getting those goal-line and short-yardage handoffs. For someone whose exploits filled the headlines for years, this was tough.
''I think a lot of people go through that when you come to a big program out of high school,'' Alston said. ''You're the man. Then you get up here and you have to start at the bottom of the totem pole.''
The sitting and watching led to questioning. Others in similar shoes were transferring or just giving up the game all together. Alston and Beatty were close, and the coach always left the door open for conversations with his players.
''I think there were some times when I felt like I should have played,'' Alston said. ''My freshman year, I thought I should have played, but then after I got to my sophomore year, I said 'maybe I wasn't ready to play.' ''
It was during Alston's sophomore year that Devine got hurt in a game against LSU. He thought this might be his big chance. The West Virginia coaches did not.
It was back to Beatty's office for another conversation. The Mountaineers coaches wanted to stay ahead of potential self-doubt, not that it was ever a real issue for Alston.
''Even when people may not think you're good, you know you're good enough inside,'' Alston said. ''You've always got to have that confidence within yourself and you just keep working and eventually hard work pays off. As long as you keep grinding and keep pushing and you stay hungry for what you want to achieve and ultimately you'll achieve it.''
By the time his sophomore season ended, he had 56 more carries and 248 yards on his resume. Still no starts. Still no touchdowns.
Things would get worse before they got better. There was a coaching change during that offseason and Alston was injured for much of spring ball and nearly all of fall camp.
''It was hard for me,'' Alston said. ''I was like, 'man, I'm never going to play here?' I didn't do the spring ball, then fall comes around and I practice like four times.
''I'm thinking 'oh my God, they're probably going to take my scholarship.' But they stuck beside me - I don't even know what they saw in me - but they definitely stuck beside me.''
He saw his first action of 2011 against Maryland in Week 3 after the new coaches, specifically head coach Dana Holgorsen and running backs coach Robert Gillespe, finally saw him practice.
''Last year, not being able to play, I was on the sideline, I was about to cry, it just hurts you so bad,'' Alston said. ''As time goes on, you try to build off that and try to play better.''
From there, he took off, rewarding his coaches' patience on the snowy turf at Rutgers, where he rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns on a day that was tough sledding for nearly everyone else.
Still, he hadn't completely arrived as a premier back at West Virginia. He didn't fit the mold, not as a recent WVU running back (think Devine, Steve Slaton), or a running back in Dana Holgorsen's system. Dustin Garrison, who ran for 291 yards against Bowling Green three games prior to the Rutgers game, did.
''I don't really shy away from that because at the end of the day, it's competition,'' Alston said. ''If you quit on that, just because the system is different, you're probably saying that guy is better than you. Any system that is there, I think I can run.
''When I first came, they said (since converted tailback) Tavon (Austin) was going to be the next Noel Devine in the backfield. It's competition. Tavon's a pretty good guy, but I don't mind competing with anybody. Hopefully next year, if I'm lucky enough to go to the NFL, I'm sure I'll be competing with a pretty good running back.''
By the time last season ended, Alston had rushed for 416 yards and 12 touchdowns, serving that short-yardage/goal line spot Beatty envisioned well.
By the time the finalized opening-day depth chart was released last week, Alston had finally risen to the top.
''I am very excited, because this is the first time I am starting a game at the beginning of the season. I just want to go out there and do a great job,'' Alston said. ''I want to bring energy, but at the same time, I have to go out there and make some plays.''