MORGANTOWN - Every day teaches Dustin Garrison something new. The surgery to repair the torn ACL in the running back’s left knee is in the past, the present is an education and the future offers no guarantees.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie knows the feeling, not because he’s been through this before, but because he’s never been through this before.
Gillespie, who played the position in college at Florida and the NFL with the Washington Redskins, never had the injury. In seven years coaching the position in college, Garrison is Gillespie’s first player to tear an ACL.
“It’s all new to me,” Gillespie said. “I always try to speak off of experience so when I’m talking to them it’s about what I’ve seen and what I’ve done. This is a little different to me because I haven’t been through it. I don’t know mentally or physically what he’s feeling.”
So Gillespie is going back to school and learning what he can about what a player goes through during the recovery.
He has an open dialogue with the athletic trainers, who field any questions he has. Some of those trainers know people who work for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Gillespie said they’re trying to find a player who’s torn an ACL to speak to Garrison and share experiences.
Inside the Puskar Center is the team’s assistant director of football operations, Quincy Wilson, who had the knee injury after his freshman season. He can reinforce the idea that Garrison can make it back and be productive again.
Through the sum of his work, Gillespie already has a plan.
“Obviously, it’s a tough injury, but the ACL is just like any other injury. You have to feel comfortable coming back,” Gillespie said. “If a guy had a bad shoulder, he needs to let me know he feels. It’s all about making a guy feel comfortable. We’re not going to throw a guy out there and say, ‘Deal with it.’ He has to feel comfortable.
“Once he feels comfortable, he’ll be able to do the things we ask him. We’ve got all of camp, so there’s time to figure it out. It may not be the first game. It may be three or four games into it where he’s right.”
Garrison is doing his part, not only putting in the extra work in the weight room after or even between practices, but being honest with the trainers and Gillespie. Things feel good so far, but they’re not perfect.
“I’m not really worried about anything,” he said. “I’m out there running like nothing ever happened. Cutting is fine. Everything is fine. The only thing that really bothers me is sudden stops. It’s not bad, but it’s just an aggravation because of the knee brace. I’m just not used to it.”
There are other things that require an adjustment. Garrison is wearing ice packs on both knees after practice, one for the obvious preservation of the repaired knee, but one for the other knee that’s been affected. The quadriceps in the left leg isn’t as strong as the right and Garrison unknowingly compensates.
“The bad one is actually starting to catch up now, but the good one is starting to be the bad one,” Garrison said. “The training staff said it’s because of stretching and paying attention to the bad one. They said I need to focus on the other one now.”
Garrison wasn’t eased back into football. Cleared to run and cut last month, he participated in the first practice and wasn’t kept out of two-a-days, when he only had a few hours, as opposed to an entire day, between practices.
“Once I got out there, it was automatic and I went out there taking the right steps, making the right reads and following the right blockers,” he said. “Watching film, it looks like I’m back where I was.”
Garrison, who led the team with 742 yards rushing last season and thrived after Coach Dana Holgorsen named him the starter in the fourth game, doesn’t look identical, though. Following surgery, he wasn’t allowed to do any offseason weight training work on his lower body. He instead focused on the upper body.
“I feel like I got a lot stronger,” he said. “Coach Holgorsen and Coach Gillespie came up to me and they saw me from the back and they said, ‘Who’s that guy?’”
Gillespie said the Mountaineers can remain patient with Garrison and allow him whatever he needs to get back to normal. Senior Shawne Alston is healthy - he wasn’t last preseason - and Andrew Buie is recovered from a series of nagging injuries in his freshman injury. Freshman Torry Clayton has been a pleasant surprise in the first week of camp.
“That’s it, but Ryan Clarke is a guy that’s a utility guy who can carry the ball and showed in the spring he can carry the ball,” Gillespie said of the senior who was WVU’s fullback his first two seasons, but didn’t carry the ball last season after developing a fumbling problem in 2010.
“I’m not worried about him. Everyone else is worried about what he did two years ago. He had (16) rushing touchdowns in his career before we got here. He’s a guy who’ll be able to carry the ball if we need to. Who’s the big guy or the small guy? We’ve got running backs, guys who’ll be able to do it this year and who can show everyone they can do what we ask them to do.”