By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The name was almost hush-hush in the West Virginia University Mountaineers football camp that ended Saturday, a secret weapon, if you will, at a position that needed a boost.
He was a walk-on, although one who came with virtually a handwritten invitation, one with a strong pedigree out of a program WVU has turned into its Class AAA farm team at Miramar High School.
His name is De’ Vontis Arnold, and he’s a 5-foot-9, 185-pound running back, coming along as a freshman in a year when that is a position without great depth and with one giant question mark in Dustin Garrison, who is coming back from knee surgery.
Running back coach Robert Gillespie decided that once camp had ended and he had seen Arnold show himself to be capable, it was time to reveal his existence.
“The guy you guys haven’t heard about, De’ Vontis Arnold, he’s from Miramar. He’s been able to take some quality reps and done a real good job,” Gillespie said.
Gillespie was in no hurry to put him on the spot publicly, to turn him into something he might not be before he was sure about him, although the truth is that Gillespie all along knew this was a kid who had a chance.
After all, he recruits Miramar, and considering the likes of Geno Smith, the all-world quarterback, record-shattering receiver Stedman Bailey and receivers Ivan McCartney, Devonte Mathis and Terrence Gourdine all come out of that Florida school coached by WVU alumnus Damon Cogdill, when he gets one from there he believes he can play.
That was proven in camp.
“He’s a guy that’s ready to go play, if we need him to,” Gillespie said.
The situation at running back at the moment is tenuous as far as depth goes, considering that Garrison’s knee situation remains up in the air, although he says he’s fine and has performed well.
“He’s a tough kid,” Gillespie said of Garrison. “He’s the kind of kid you have to make sure he’s being honest with you because he won’t say he’s hurt if you ask him.”
And so there is a wait-and-see approach.
“As a staff we have to sit down with the medical staff and see what’s best for him. Is he strong enough to go in there and protect himself, first of all, and then is he strong enough to go in there and help us? He did a really good job (in camp), and we’ll sit down in the next few days and make a decision.”
Fellow running back Shawne Alston is sold on Garrison’s physical readiness.
“He has definitely looked good,” Alston said a week ago. “He is getting hit a little bit more now. People were a little nervous to hit him the first couple of days back, but now he is getting hit, and he is saying that he is still feeling good after taking hits, and that is a good thing. Mentally, he is back into it.”
That would give the Mountaineers three experienced backs in Alston, who will work as No. 1, Garrison and Andrew
Buie, who has been healthy and played well in camp.
“Obviously it’s a long season. Shawne, Andrew Buie, those guys are ready to carry the load, but it’s always great to find a guy who is a free guy. Arnold’s earned his way and worked his way in so the staff trusts and feels comfortable with it if we have to put him into a game,” Gillespie said.
That doesn’t mean it will happen, for if the three veteran players can carry the load, the wise approach might be to redshirt Arnold along with other freshman running backs Tony Clayton and D.J. Hunt, although nothing has been decided yet.
“We don’t know yet,” Gillespie said after Saturday’s practice. “Today was a day to see them perform, to see a guy like De’ Vontis Arnold perform. We feel real good about No. 1. We know what Andrew Buie can do. We know what Shawne Alston can do. Now let’s see if these guys can close the gap enough so if we had to do something like that we could.
“Arnold’s a good football player. He turned down a chance to get a scholarship at Bethune-Cookman. He’s not a kid who didn’t have any offers. He played on a state championship football team and had a lot of schools looking at him,” Gillespie said. “We’re fortunate to have him, and he will help us later.”
Gillespie said one reason he was able to get Arnold to walk on was because of his lack of running back depth.
“If I had five or six guys sitting back there, I think it would be pretty hard for a guy to make his way through the ranks,” Gillespie said. “I talked to Arnold, told him I don’t have a lot of scholarships but I don’t have a lot of depth either. You could come and walk on and compete with some of the younger guys.”
The obvious question is how a kid like Arnold could slip through the recruiting cracks and wind up impressing at a program like WVU’s as a walk-on.
“There are good football players that slip through the cracks everywhere,” Gillespie answered. “Look at it. How does a cornerback get drafted (into the NFL) from a smaller school every year? Guys make mistakes in recruiting. There are only so many guys you can take.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.