MORGANTOWN — On the opening kickoff of the 2014 West Virginia football season in Atlanta, Alabama’s Adam Griffith sent the ball soaring to the goal line, in the direction of Mario Alford.
It was a freshman mistake — only he got away with it.
Alford took the ball and saw a seam open in front of him.
“I think one of their players had a missed assignment,” Alford recalled. “There was a huge hole, but this guy bent in real tight and made the tackle. If one of my boys would have stayed on the block, I would have made that seam and been gone.”
Instead, Alford took the ball only to the 18, where he was thumped to the ground.
Alabama players celebrated. Griffith received congratulations and was feeling pretty good about himself, especially when he later he tied the game at 3 with a 47-yard field goal on his first collegiate attempt.
Griffith should have stopped there.
Having gotten away with kicking the ball to Alford once, he pushed his luck and tried it again.
This time Alford brought it back 27 yards.
Griffith’s third kickoff sailed into the end zone for a touchback.
Then time was running down in the first half as Alabama went on a 13-play, 88-yard drive, seeming to control of the game with a 17-10 lead.
That’s when Griffith went to the well once too often, trying Alford again, driving him back to the goal line.
Alford gathered the ball in, took it forward to around the 15-yard line when he came eyeball to eyeball with Alabama’s Jabriel Washington, the same player who had brought him down on the 27-yard return.
This time Alford defrocked Mr. Washington with a nifty now-you-have-me, now-you-don’t move, slipping to the outside, turning on the afterburners that once carried him to a 10.77 100 in high school and that led quarterback Clint Trickett to dub him “the fastest man on the planet” after the game.
He was gone, outrunning the fastest Alabama had in pursuit to score a game-tying touchdown and letting the Tide know why he’s becoming known as “Super Mario.”
Not imposing physically at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, Alford has some magical feet and used them to make the move that broke himself free for the 100-yard return.
“Ah, man, it was just a little double tap step back. Once I broke it, it was to the house,” Alford said.
A “double tap step back” sounds like something out of a Bill “Bojangles” Robinson routine back in one of those early Shirley Temple movies.
Those moves were choreographed, however, while this was just a spur of the moment reaction.
“It’s just natural talent. You work on it, too, but most of it is just natural talent, making people miss,” Alford said.
That was the first of what promises to be many exciting plays both on returns — at least until the kickers realize that it might not be the wisest thing to kick the ball to him — and on pass receptions. Last year, after he was moved from the slot to the outside, where he could make the best use of his speed, Alford broke one pass for a 76-yard touchdown and had a 215-yard receiving game against Iowa State on eight catches, matching the third-best WVU single-game performance by a receiver.
Alford has just this year left to put on such performances, having spent a couple of seasons at Georgia Military College near his home in Greenville, Ga., which is close enough to Atlanta that he put his show on last Saturday before 17 family members, which is about right considering he is one of 14 children.
As far as Alford is concerned, he doesn’t care whether he’s returning kicks or catching passes. He has one thing on his mind and that’s taking the ball into the end zone.
“I like both of them,” Alford said. “I love the ball being in my hands.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel