The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/30/05
There are more recruiting services, recruiting Web sites, recruiting gurus and general interest in college football recruiting than ever before. When it comes to predicting who will boom and who will bust, however, they still whiff as often as they hit.
Case in point: West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton.
MOST POPULAR STORIES
You couldn't find Slaton's name on any top 100 lists. Few players who come out of the Philadelphia Catholic League make it. So nobody was talking about the 5-foot-10, 180-pound tailback when he signed with West Virginia over no other major program to speak of in February.
But there was plenty of talk among Mountaineers fans about another running back signee. That would be Jason Gwaltney, a five-star recruit from New York who announced his decision to sign with West Virginia — over Southern Cal, Florida State and Notre Dame, among others — on national television during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Yet it's the freshman Slaton who rushed for 924 yards, who scored 16 touchdowns, who will start against Georgia in the Nokia Sugar Bowl on Monday.
And Gwaltney? He's not with the team anymore. He quit last month.
"That's why, with all the recruiting interest and all these four-star and five-star kids, you still have to get out there and recruit other kids, good kids who you think will work hard and might be a good fit for your program," West Virginia offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. "Steve was like that, and he came in and took advantage of the situation."
Truth is, no one could have predicted Slaton's freshman season would turn out like it has. When he arrived in Morgantown, he was squarely at the bottom of the depth chart, No. 4 at best at what looked like a solid position for the Mountaineers. The first four games netted Slaton eight carries, mostly in mop-up duty.
But Slaton, a track guy whose raw speed has never been questioned, continued to impress the coaching staff in practice and in the weight room. Finally, fumbling problems by previous starters Jason Colson and Pernell Williams resulted in an unexpected opportunity.
As luck would have it, the Mountaineers decided to integrate Slaton into the offense the week they played No. 3 Virginia Tech. He fumbled on his first carry, a toss-sweep to the right, but he managed to regain control of the ball, reverse field and turn it into a 4-yard gain. Later, he'd rumble 44 yards. He finished with 90 yards on 11 carries in West Virginia's only loss.
The next week, Slaton got 139 yards on 25 carries on a rainy day against Rutgers. Next game, Slaton slashed and darted his way to 188 yards and a Big East-record six touchdowns in a triple-overtime win over Louisville.
The tailback competition came to an end.
Slaton averaged 102 yards in nine games and was named a first-team freshman All-American by Rivals.com, one of the same recruiting services that snubbed him coming out of Conwell-Egan High.
"We don't see any difference between him and [Arkansas' Darren] McFadden," who gashed the Bulldogs for 190 yards in October, Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. "He's fast enough that you can see on film the way he runs away from the angles."
For a freshman, Gwaltney had a decent season. He found a niche as a third-down back, rushing for 191 yards and three touchdowns in six games. But he injured a knee, then quit going to rehab and class.
At last report, a transfer to Nassau County Community College apparently was under consideration.
Could anybody have seen this coming?
"Me? No, not at all," Slaton said. "I didn't think this would happen so fast. I thought it would take some time. I guess all the hard work I put in just paid off."
Said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez: "He's gone above and beyond everybody's expectations, even ours. The thing is, he still hasn't scratched the surface as far as where he's going to be. We expect him to be better. That's why we're excited."
And proof again that you don't have to be a five-star recruit to become a five-star player.