Few expected this much, this soon from Slaton
West Virginia was supposed to have a freshman phenom at running back. It's just surprising that it turned out to be Steve Slaton.
At least one person predicted greatness for Steve Slaton while he was still in the womb.
"My obstetrician said he was going to be a track star," says Slaton's mother, Juanita Tiggett-Slaton. "He'd check one side of my stomach, and Steve would be on the other side before you'd know it. I said, 'He moves like that all the time; is there something wrong?' [The obstetrician] would be looking for him and saying, 'Whoa whoa you're going to have a little track star there.'
"Steve didn't like to be touched."
He still doesn't, as the Louisville Cardinals could surely attest.
In the interview room afterward, WVU sports information director Shelly Poe displayed Slaton's mangled facemask as a testament to his incredible performance. Nobody in the 112-year history of Mountaineers football had scored six touchdowns in a game. And even though three of the scores came in overtime, the feat put Slaton in some elite company, tying him with ex-Miami star Willis McGahee for the Big East record.
"Everybody's going to take notice of Steve now," WVU safety Mike Lorello said.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Slaton has started only two games but leads the Mountaineers (6-1, 3-0 Big East, ranked 17th in BCS Poll) in rushing with 459 yards and a robust 6.1 yards per carry. He scored all six of his touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime Saturday, including a scintillating, 23-yard dash down the left sideline for WVU's second OT score.
People expected a freshman running back to emerge in Morgantown this season. They just didn't think it would be Slaton, who committed before fellow tailback and prized recruit Jason Gwaltney.
Talk about a warm-up act. Slaton's commitment barely made a ripple in the football-crazed Mountain State. Gwaltney, who had been pursued by likes of Southern Cal, made his announcement on national television.
Slaton wasn't concerned. He liked WVU for one simple reason.
"They run the ball," he said.
Slaton figures he and Gwaltney can make a dynamic pairing, with the 6-1, 245-pound Gwaltney playing bruiser to Slaton's cruiser. WVU coach Rich Rodriguez had just begun to pair the two in the starting backfield when Gwaltney went down with an ankle injury two weeks ago.
"He's a big guy. I'm more of a speed guy," Slaton said. "I think our running styles complement each other."
In his senior year at Conwell-Egan High in Levittown, Pa., Slaton rushed for 1,832 yards to lead the program to its first 10-win season since 1969. He attracted heavy interest from Notre Dame, Rutgers and Temple and verbally committed to Maryland before reneging when it became clear the Terps wanted him to play defensive back.
"I don't know what happened, but as soon as that window opened, we kind of jumped all over it," Rodriguez said. "Steve was a little bit under the radar, but we were very excited. Obviously, Jason Gwaltney was more known, and we're still excited about him. But after watching [Slaton] on film for a couple of plays, you're like, 'Wow, this guy has a little extra burst.'
"After meeting him and being around him a little bit in camp, he had a sense of maturity and a sense of focus that very few freshmen come in with."
Going into summer camp, Slaton was buried so far down the depth chart you needed a compass to find him. The Big East Conference preseason media guide sized up WVU's running back situation thusly: "Sophomore Pernell Williams will see time behind [junior Jason] Colson. Junior Erick Phillips, who is returning from knee surgery, will also look to make an impact, along with tailback Jason Gwaltney, Josh Bailey, Brad Palmer, Justin Dziak, Owen Schmitt and junior college transfer Louis Davis, who will compete for time at fullback and tight end."
Slaton figured this would be a year to learn, not lead the team in rushing.
"I'm very surprised," he said. "I was very content just taking the year off and learning the system."
Slaton's teammates, however, knew he was something special back in the spring. It's hard to miss a guy who is so fast that in Pee-Wee ball he kicked off and beat everybody downfield to make the tackle.
"I knew right away," said Schmitt, a sophomore fullback. "They asked me in a little questionnaire who the breakout player was going to be, and I said, 'Steve.'"
The breakout didn't occur until WVU's 34-17 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 1. Slaton rushed for 90 yards on 11 carries that day, including the most amazing 4-yard, change-of-direction run you'll ever see and a 44-yard scamper later in the game. He made his first career start the next week against Rutgers and raced for 139 yards on 25 carries.
Slaton has a history of dramatic entrances. In his first high school start, as a freshman, he rushed for 296 yards and five touchdowns.
"He's got pretty much every record there ever was here," Conwell-Egan coach Kevin Kelly says. "When you're that fast, people sometimes think you're a track guy who plays football. He's just a pure football player who happens to have incredible speed. He's not just a sideline guy, either. He was an aggressive, hard-hitting safety, too."
That kind of toughness can be attributed to growing up as the youngest of six children. Tiggett-Slaton and her husband, Carl, nicknamed little Steve "MacGyver" because he was always conducting experiments. He'd switch the ink in pens, make "magic potions" with all manner of household goods and build makeshift vehicles out of cardboard.
"He was our scientific engineer," Tiggett-Slaton said. "One time, I found him hiding underneath the pool table because he'd taken apart the remote control and couldn't put it back together. Oh, he was a handful."
He still is.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.