It was a busynight at Kegler's, a sports bar in Morgantown, W.Va., and Steve Slaton had towind his way through the crowd to find an open table, a process that you mightexpect to cause a great deal of commotion, given his local fame. Slaton, WestVirginia's elusive sophomore tailback, may not have a recognizable face inother parts of the nation, but he's a major celebrity in Mountaineers country,and not just because "in West Virginia every day is a slow news day,"as coach Rich Rodriguez, a native son, likes to say. ¬∂ But as he worked his waytoward the back room, Slaton slid through tight spaces and past patrons who,not unlike some of the tacklers who try to bring him down, didn't react untilhe was already past them. He and his buddy--and fellow Mountaineersstar--quarterback Pat White were sitting at a table with their mozzarellasticks and Cokes by the time customers began approaching them forautographs.
That's a familiarphenomenon to Slaton, whose rise from a fourth-string tailback as a freshman toan increasingly strong Heisman candidate as a sophomore has been so sudden thatthe rest of the country has had to do a collective double take. The recruitersfrom schools who either pursued other backs more actively, like Maryland, orwanted him to switch to defensive back, like Wisconsin, are no doubt alsotaking a second--albeit regretful--look at Slaton, now that he's sixth in thenation in rushing with 145.8 yards per game and 6.8 per carry for thefourth-ranked Mountaineers. Slaton hasn't slowed down after his remarkablefreshman year, when he finished with 1,128 yards (including 204 yards and threetouchdowns in West Virginia's 38--35 win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl)despite sitting on the bench for most of the first four games.
"This isn't arevenge thing," says Slaton. "Some schools just didn't see the samethings in me that I saw in myself. I don't hold a grudge about that. It was ablessing in a way because I found the school that did see those things."Some of those attributes were apparent almost immediately to the West Virginiacoaching staff. Rodriguez remembers watching a tape of Slaton for the firsttime, as a junior at Conwell-Egan High in Fairless Hills, Pa., and being blownaway by his speed and cutting ability. "It took about 25 seconds before I'dseen all I needed to see," he says. "I went down the hall to our othercoaches and said, 'Who is this guy? Do we have a shot at him? Please tell me wehave a shot at him.'"
Although otherschools may have been concerned about Slaton's lack of size--he's listed at5'10", which may be a bit generous, and at 190 pounds he's about fivepounds lighter than he was coming out of high school--it didn't deterRodriguez, who was looking for a speedy back to fit into the running game thatWest Virginia features, which puts a premium on quickness. But it wasn't untilSlaton arrived in Morgantown that the Mountaineers realized exactly what theyhad--a back whose dedication matched his considerable talent. Slaton is giftedenough to outrun everyone on the team (he has been timed at 4.37 in the 40),yet committed enough to attempt to outstudy them too. "He's the kind of kidwho's here [in the football offices] studying tape when you don't expect him tobe here," says running backs coach Calvin Magee. "The extra time he putinto learning the offense last year was what got him on the field as afreshman."
His parents, CarlSlaton and Juanita Tiggett-Slaton, could have told the coaching staff thatSteve, the youngest of their six children, would be precocious. "I thinkhe's been making moves since before he was born," says Juanita. "He wasso active while I was carrying him that the doctor asked me if I had a trackstar in there." Steve moved even faster once he entered the world. By thetime he was a toddler, the Slatons had to post a parent or one of Steve'ssiblings on opposite sides of the car before they unbuckled him from his carseat because once he was free, he had a habit of taking off like, well, atailback.
The Slatonsmanaged to corral their youngest son long enough to shape him into the personhis coaches rave about. "There was a lot of love in my family," Stevesays. "A lot of guys wouldn't do this, for instance, but I kiss my fatherevery time I see him. But there was also a lot of discipline. They taught me tobe humble and responsible." Those qualities impressed defensive line coachBill Kirelawich, who was primarily in charge of Slaton's recruitment."Sometimes you tell a kid you're recruiting that you'll meet him at seven,and he'll show up at 10 after," Kirelawich says. "Steve would show up10 minutes before seven. That's the kind of small thing that tells you about akid, about how he's been brought up."
Slaton alsoimpressed the Mountaineers with his blend of humility--he answers mostquestions about his running ability with odes to his linemen--and just theright amount of cockiness. "The best thing is putting a move on a guy whothinks he's about to bring you down and making him miss," he says. "Ilove embarrassing guys." He also doesn't mind letting his victims knowabout it. "On his way back to the huddle he'll say something like, 'Didn'tknow you were soft,' to a guy, without even looking at him," says fullbackOwen Schmitt. "He's not a trash-talker; he's just kind of raising thecompetition a little bit." Slaton is also team-oriented enough that he'sbeen known to come to the sideline after a touchdown run annoyed at himself fornot blocking better at some point during the possession, but he's competitiveenough that he turns the most mundane activities into contests. Last season heand White had a running battle in practice over who could be the first to popto his feet after stretching drills. "He wants to be the best ateverything, no matter what," says White.
That approachserved Slaton well when he entered his freshman year behind four othertailbacks on the depth chart. But it wasn't long before his practiceperformances made it clear that he was the Mountaineers' best back. His firstcarry as a starter was against Virginia Tech in the fifth game of the season."He dropped the pitch, picked it up, made a couple of moves to avoidgetting tackled for a loss and wound up turning the play into somethingpositive," says Rodriguez. "It was the most spectacular six-yard runyou ever saw."
Most of Slaton'steammates consider another run to be his most memorable--the 37-yard touchdowndash against Maryland in a 45--24 win on Sept. 14. Slaton started to the left,reversed his field and headed all the way to the right sideline before swervingback to the middle of the field and beating two diving defenders to the endzone. The play was as significant for its opponent as for its creativity;Slaton would have been a Terrapin if Maryland had not rescinded its scholarshipoffer after he had verbally committed to the school. "I got a call from areporter asking me what my reaction was to not having a scholarshipanymore," he says. "It was the first I had heard about it, so I calledthe school, and one of the coaches told me they were sorry but they didn't haveenough scholarships. I was mad for a while, but I felt I was too good a playerto let that stop me."
He was also toogood for the Terps to stop him on the field--he gained 195 yards, includingfour runs of 30 yards or more, against them. "He's a great back,"Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said after the game. "I hope he wins theHeisman." That's not as much of a long shot as it seemed a few weeks ago.With some of the leading candidates already having had off games, Slaton'schances are improving. His sophomore status won't help him, nor will therelatively quiet game he had last Saturday against East Carolina, when thePirates limited him to 80 yards on 24 carries. Because the Mountaineers have arather nondescript schedule remaining, with only Louisville in the top 20,Slaton probably can't afford another subpar game if he wants to keep thevoters' attention.
Considering thatan underclassman has never won the Heisman, Slaton's chances would seem to bemuch better next season, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he at least earns aninvitation to New York as one of the top vote-getters. He has a habit ofarriving a little ahead of schedule.
See where the Mountaineers stand in Stewart Mandel'spower rankings at si.com/collegefootball.