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Burning Like Bush

West Virginia's Slaton reminds observers of a certain former USC Heisman winner

September 23, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

They said there would never be another Reggie Bush, but have you seen West Virginia sophomore Steve Slaton?

He's Bush-like without the paper trail.

"I'm a big fan of his," Slaton said during a conference call this week.

Slaton, like Bush, is a firefly of dashing dips and darts, with directional changes known to loosen opposition knee cartilage.

"Facially, he even looks like Reggie Bush," said Bill Kirelawich, the Mountaineers assistant coach who recruited Slaton from eastern Pennsylvania.

Maybe guys like these come around twice in a generation.

After three stunning performances in three West Virginia victories, Slaton stages Act Four today when the fourth-ranked Mountaineers play at East Carolina in a game that will be televised on ESPN2.

East Carolina gave West Virginia plenty of trouble last year before losing, 20-15, in Morgantown. Perhaps the snugness of that outcome had something to do with the fact that Slaton, then a freshman, had not yet cracked the starting lineup.

What will Slaton -- nicknamed "Superman" in high school -- do today?

In West Virginia's season opener against Marshall, he carried 33 times for 203 yards, further debunking the myth that his 5-foot-10, 190-pound frame couldn't endure a workload.

In week two, against a weak Eastern Washington team, Slaton played only two offensive series, gained 105 yards in eight carries, and took the rest of the day off.

In his next game, against Maryland, he gained 149 yards -- in the first quarter. He averaged 9.3 yards a carry, had four runs of 30 yards or more and finished five yards shy of 200.

"Speed helps a lot," Slaton said.

Maryland was more than a game. Slaton had committed to the school when he was a high school junior but the Terrapins later withdrew the scholarship offer for reasons only Coach Ralph Friedgen could explain.

"I just had so many running backs," Friedgen said on a conference call before the West Virginia game. "It was hard for me to take another."

Soon, after seeing Slaton in action, it became hard for Friedgen to take another swallow.

"They felt they had a few other guys that they wanted, they had a lot of running backs," Slaton said of the Maryland snub. "They said they needed linemen."

Slaton, who became a starter in the sixth game last season, has proved himself to be among the four best players in the country in September, joining Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson and Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe.

A blogger on the West Virginia fan site, WeMustIgniteThisCouch.com, described Slaton as "the world's fastest organism."

Unlike Bush, whose La Mesa (Calif.) Helix High highlights dropped jaws around the country, Slaton had to fight through Division I doubts despite gaining more than 6,000 yards at Conwell-Egan High in Levittown, Pa.

Slaton wasn't big -- he needed fish weights in his cleats to tip 180 on the scale -- which some schools saw as a drawback. Boston College and Wisconsin wanted him to play cornerback.

A 6,000-yard rusher with blazing speed recruited to backpedal?

Kirelawich, the West Virginia assistant, said it's not as crazy as it sounds.

"You have to have Reggie Bushes over on the other side [on defense] to stop him," he said.

Slaton starred in eastern Pennsylvania, for years Kirelawich's recruiting area.

Kirelawich, naturally, knew from the moment he saw him that Slaton would become a premier major college back for the No. 4 team in the country.

Well, maybe not.

"I ain't that smart," Kirelawich said. "But it's like that guy who says, 'I don't know art but I know what I like.' I'm kind of like that. I know what I like."

Kirelawich kept in touch with Slaton, even after he made the oral commitment to Maryland.

When Maryland pulled Slaton's scholarship offer, West Virginia had the signing pen ready.

Slaton arrived with only marginal fanfare, yet by midseason 2005 he had joined forces with quarterback Pat White to give West Virginia the best one-two freshman punch in the country.

Slaton finished with 1,128 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns, and his 204 yards in the Sugar Bowl broke Tony Dorsett's record.

Slaton's weight last year dipped below 180 pounds, but he has added more than 10 pounds of muscle to his frame.

Stardom, it seems, has worked up his appetite.

"He runs hungry a lot of times," West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez said. "He runs like he's trying to score on every play."

West Virginia's unusual spread offense, which emphasizes the run over the pass, has made trying to stop the Mountaineers like trying to stop a mudslide. White, Slaton and fullback Owen Schmitt give West Virginia a formidable three-headed attack.

"We spread everyone out on an island," Slaton explained, "and it's hard to tackle you one on one."

West Virginia averages a nation-leading 348.67 yards rushing a game while attempting an average of only 12 passes.

"If I was them I wouldn't throw it either," East Carolina Coach Skip Holtz said.

Slaton, by the way, will be wearing uniform No. 10 today.

Catch him if you can.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Quick start

Steve Slaton has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of West Virginia's three wins this season. And the sophomore has yet to fumble after 267 carries in his career with the Mountaineers:

*--* 2006 OPPONENT ATT. YDS. AVG. TDs Marshall 33 203 6.2 2 Eastern Wash. 8 105 13.1 2 Maryland 21 195 9.3 2 TOTALS 62 503 8.1 6

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Source: espn.com

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