Three years ago, no one, outside of his parents, had any idea who Steve Slaton was.
Two years ago, the entire nation was buzzing about Slaton's performance in the Sugar Bowl. He had rushed for over 1,000 yards in a less than complete season and was only a true freshman. But could he repeat it?
One year ago, he repeated it. Big time. Slaton went for 1,744 yards and 16 TDs rushing (plus another 360 yards and 2 TDs receiving), finishing 4th in the Heisman voting. He was officially a superstar. But could he stay there?
This year, Slaton is gone to the NFL after an extremely disappointing junior year. So what happened, and where do we go from here?
Slaton's 2007, by anyone else's standards, was a very good year. Over 1,000 yards rushing (on 5 yards/carry) and 17 TDs. But after 2006, we all expected more out of Slaton. And to be honest, once conference season began, Slaton was nowhere to be found.
But was that Slaton's fault? His father certainly doesn't think so:
"(Rodriguez) just took everything away from Steven."
"If he went back, he would have to learn a new system and the coaches coming in now, they are looking toward the future," Carl said to Jerardi. "And the way it played out last year . . . "
The truth probably lies somewhere in between Slaton giving it away and it being taken from him. It was obvious that Slaton was not the same back he was last year. There were glimpses, sure, like the dazzling TD run at Rutgers. But, on the day, Slaton had only 73 yards, 38 coming on the aforementioned run. Just like most other games, Slaton was bottled up continually throughout the game.
Slaton, bottom-line, just wasn't as productive. Sure, Rodriguez went away from him later in the year, but was this his way of pulling the rug out from beneath him or simply a lack of faith in his abilities to gain yardage? Again, the answer most likely lies somewhere in between.
But if Slaton was unable to put up the yards, why is he going to the NFL and are we going to miss him?
First, the NFL question. Slaton is projected as a 2nd rounder at this April's entry draft, not exactly the top 10 pick he looked destined for after 2006, but still a good pay day. With the extremely short shelf-life of an NFL back, probably good enough to take the money and run, especially considering Slaton's skill-set.
Let's assume that Slaton, considering his size and health history, is not a marquee NFL back, but more of a change-of-pace or third down back. What is gained by coming back for his senior season? He'll still be the same back after 2008 as he is right now, plus he'll gain an extra year of NFL cash by going pro. If you make that first assumption, which I believe is the correct one, Slaton is making the right decision.
So, now the $64,000 question: will we miss him?
The short answer is yes. It's tough to lose a 1,000 yard rusher, no matter who you have coming back. The key to this whole deal, though, is how and with whom do we replace him? Noel Devine, obviously, becomes the feature back. We all agree that he's a special player. But as much as we run the ball, it is imperative to have that second, change-of-pace back. Right now, we don't have one.
Jock Sanders is a good player, but he brings the same type of running to the table as Devine. To truly replace Slaton, a larger running back will have to emerge. We'll still have Collington on the roster, but nothing has convinced me that he's the answer, even in a backup role.
Likely, we'll have to look at the incoming freshman class. One name that immediately stands out is Terrance Kerns, the massive bruiser of a tailback. But, as always, there's a catch: will he qualify? We won't know for awhile not. And it's an awfully scary proposition to rely on a true freshman that's not even in school yet (and may never be). Especially for a top 10 team known for its tailbacks.
So, that's where things stand right now. As recently seems to be the case with Mountaineer football, everything is up in the air -- and likely to stay that way until the season opener.
Regardless, though, we're sure to miss Steve Slaton.