NEW ORLEANS -- West Virginia coach Don Nehlen always has emphasized the running game, so he was a little queasy after the Mountaineers lost their top back in the season opener.
A fractured left leg kept senior Jon Jones out of the next seven games, but it also created an opportunity for sophomore Robert Walker, who proceeded to set a Mountaineers record for yards gained in a season. Walker, who had 14 carries as a freshman, this year got the ball 201 times and gained 1,191 yards, besting a West Virginia record set in 1969.
In his first collegiate start, Walker burned Maryland for 161 yards, but his three fumbles kept the Terps in the game and he played little the next week against Missouri. He picked up 161 yards against Louisville, 163 against Pitt and 198 on national TV against Syracuse.
"Obviously, he's been a great surprise for us," said Mountaineers offensive coordinator Mike Jacobs.
Walker's production defied the explanation Errict Rhett gave for selecting Florida over West Virginia. Rhett, the Gators' all-time leading rusher, visited West Virginia as a high school senior in 1989.
"One of the reasons I didn't go to West Virginia is that they play too many running backs," Rhett said. "I didn't want to be one of four or five guys in the rotation. I'd probably be playing defensive back if I was at West Virginia now."
Deep kicking game, too
West Virginia has a platoon system in its kicking game. Tom Mazzone, the short-range specialist, has hit five of seven field-goal attempts and all 16 extra points, and Todd Sauerbrun is 8-for-17 from longer range and 30 of 32 on extra points.
Sauerbrun was recruited as a place-kicker out of Ward-Melville High in Long Island, N.Y., where he made a 62-yard field goal, but he also has developed into one of the nation's best punters. He improved his own school record with a 45.1-yard average this season, and he would have ranked third in the nation if he had had enough attempts.
Next Gators great?
Peyon Manning, one of the nation's top two quarterback prospects along with fellow Louisianian Josh Booty, dropped in on Florida's practice at the Superdome on Wednesday. It's a dead period for recruiting, meaning that coach Steve Spurrier couldn't talk to Manning, and at one point Spurrier carried on a conversation with the person standing next to Manning as the coach and athlete did their best to ignore each other.
Manning is the son of Archie Manning, the former New Orleans Saints quarterback, and is the object of a heated recruiting war in the Southeastern Conference.