MORGANTOWN — Among the things West Virginia’s offense lacked last season — and there were a lot — was something it really had but didn’t understand what to do with — Mario Alford.
The offense, as coach Dana Holgorsen has devised it, relies heavily on small, quicker, “scatback” type receiver who can get into one-on-one situations with defenders who cannot cover him.
See Tavon Austin highlight tapes from the two previous years.
They envisioned Alford as that type of receiver … hide him the slot, move him around, get the ball into his hands quickly and let his ability take over.
As it turned out, they might as well have put big ol’ Quinton Spain there and it would have been as good, for Alford wasn’t ready to play the slot.
See, he did have all those skills you need — speed, elusiveness, hands — but he didn’t know how to use them. In high school in Georgia he had been a quarterback and at Georgia Military College they were handing him the ball most of the time, not passing it to him.
So, when he came to WVU, he was lost.
“Last year, I was new to the program. It was my first year in a D-I program, my first year playing on the big stage,” Alford said. “They put a lot of pressure on me and wanted me to started right then and know it. It just takes time after time after to get it.”
And the game is different here, for there are players on the other side of the ball who are as fast and athletic as you are, so you have to have some smarts and experience to make things work.
“My first few games, when I was at slot receiver, I was kind of lost. I wasn’t contributing to the team. Toward the end of the season it was a whole different story,” Alford recalled. “I came in thinking I was going to get straight into a slot receiver, but it had a lot to that job. As time went on, I had to study a lot of things. I had to study film. I had to study the playbook. I learned the slot receiver job, but it didn’t work out for me.”
The result was the coaches taking Alford and moving him from the slot to an outside receiver’s spot.
“It’s much easier outside,” he said. “Basically, you run vertical routes. Outside I could beat people with my speed.”
And Alford had to be fast when he was growing up, see, because he was one of 14 children born to Wardell and Mildred Alford.
Not just one of 14, but the youngest.
“I was the last one, so they treat me like the king because they know that I’m here and doing big things for myself. All of them want me to be great,” Alford said.
The Alford family consisted of seven brothers and seven sisters in Greenville, Ga., although one of the sisters died from a bout with pneumonia right after Alford was born. His mom stayed at home with the family while his dad worked at Georgia Pacific.
And the four-bedroom home wasn’t overly crowded as Alford grew up in it, the family spread out over the years, his oldest brother being nearly 40. In fact, by the time he was a teenager, there were only three or four children left at home, the others having gone off to start their lives.
They did so with some pretty good training at home and a full stomach.
“Oh, man, my mom, she cooked big meals. Everyone eating, she was a great chef. She could cook anything,” Alford said.
Athletically Alford had a brother who became something of a hero to him.
“My one brother, Stacy, he had big-time offers, but he got caught up in stuff. He was pretty fast, but I’m the fastest of the group,” Alford said. “I’d go watch him all the time. He was a superstar and I looked up to him a lot.”
As it was only two of the Alfords went to college, and Mario is now trying to give them all the big bonanza of maybe a degree and an NFL career, something he showed flashes of being capable of attaining last season after he was moved outside from the slot.
Using speed that had him timed at 10.77 in the 100 in high school, Alford came on with a rush to finished with 27 catches for 557 yards, 20.4 yards per reception, and two touchdowns.
In the season finale against Iowa State, he put his stamp on himself as a player to watch this year by catching eight passes for 215 yards, the third best single-game performance in WVU history.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel