In our continuing effort to provide you, our readers, with top-notch coverage of the Texans 2008 draft class, we sought out expert insight from those in the know. For the insider's perspective on Steve Slaton, we turned to West Virginia University's Director of New Media, Mr. John Antonik.
Mr. Antonik has been involved with the university for twenty years as a student, graduate student, and as an employee in the athletic department. He has been covering the WVU football team on a daily basis since 1998, writing numerous articles in that time. He is currently responsible for all of the department's websites, including the university's official athletic site. Suffice to say, he is an expert in all things WVU football.
We asked Mr. Antonik ten questions starting off with his first impressions of Steve Slaton and finishing up with his expectations for Steve at the next level. The verbatim questions and responses were as follows.
What were your initial impressions of Steve coming into the program his freshman year?
Anyone who saw him in practice knew right away that he was going to be an outstanding player. I recall one early scrimmage when he took a simple sweep and out-ran the entire defense to the sideline for a long touchdown – no moves, just pure speed. There was another occasion against Virginia Tech during his freshman year when he took his first hand-off of the game, dropped the ball in the end zone, picked it up, changed directions and out-ran the entire Tech defense for a six-yard gain. The entire stadium gave him a standing ovation. As they say, it was the prettiest six-yard run you’ll ever see.
Slaton came into WVU’s program with another running back, Jason Gwaltney. Gwaltney, a high school all American, came in with much more fanfare. How long did it take before Steve grabbed the spotlight?
Not long at all. Steve’s first career start came at Rutgers, following the Virginia Tech game, and he ran for more than 100 yards against the Scarlet Knights. The next game was the triple-overtime win over Louisville when he scored six touchdowns. After the Louisville game everyone knew what the West Virginia program had in Steve Slaton.
I recall Steve fielding a lot of questions about Gwaltney when both of them came to camp together and I distinctly remember Slaton being indifferent about the whole situation - kind of like, he may have the hype, but you haven’t seen me run yet. The reality was both were productive in 2005 before Gwaltney left the program.
Steve’s sophomore season was one for the record books. What do you remember most about that season?
The thing I remember most is how he was able to put up such impressive numbers despite defenses keying on him. His best game that year was against our big rival Pitt when he rushed for 215 yards and also caught six passes for 130 yards. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt took his fastest player and put him at linebacker to spy on Slaton and I remember Slaton running right by him on a wheel route for a long touchdown pass. It was like the guy was standing still. Slaton and Pat White were just dominant in that game.
Another great performance came against Maryland. Of course everyone knows the story about the Terrapins pulling his scholarship offer before he signed with WVU, so Steve was always excited to play the Terps. He finished with 195 yards rushing and had a pair of long touchdown runs.
Afterward he was classy with his post-game remarks, but you knew deep down inside that he was ecstatic to be able to prove to Maryland that he was a big-league tailback.
I read that Steve played with an injured wrist in 2006. What can you tell me about the injury (how/when it happened) and were there any lingering effects during the 2007 season?
The injury actually occurred during his freshman year against Connecticut in 2005 and it wasn’t corrected until after his sophomore season in the winter of 2007. I recall Steve saying it was like playing with one hand tied behind his back. He actually carried the ball in his left arm the entire season even on running plays to the right because he didn’t have the strength in his wrist to properly secure the ball. Yet the wrist didn’t affect him a great deal in the passing game because he wound up catching 27 passes.
After the surgery the wrist has not been a problem whatsoever.
His productivity took a downturn in 2007. Why?
I think there were a number of factors. 1.) West Virginia had to make some key replacements along the offensive line including at center where the Mountaineers had a Rimington Award winner in Dan Mozes. 2.) Offensive line coach Rick Trickett, a zone blocking disciple, left for Florida State. 3.) Teams had a year to come up with a better plan of stopping Slaton. 4.) West Virginia didn’t have a deep threat in the passing game, meaning teams could put as many as nine in the box to stop the running game and 5.) QB Pat White had a terrific year.
One thing Steve chose to do during the off-season was to bulk up a little bit to prove to NFL scouts that he could run between the tackles and was durable enough to be an everyday back in the league. Some questioned if his added bulk may have impacted his speed. I don’t know.
Steve also had some hamstring problems which ultimately kept him out of the majority of his last two bowl games. I believe he has been working with a personal trainer to try and regain some of that flexibility and explosive speed that he had during his freshman and sophomore seasons while also maintaining his present weight.
Personally, if he has to choose between weighing 200 pounds or dropping down to 190 to regain that extra step I say he should not worry so much about the weight. Steve’s legs will always be his biggest weapon.
In terms of character and work ethic, what can the Texans expect from Steve Slaton?
I believe the Texans are going to love what Steve Slaton brings to the table. He comes from an outstanding family; he’s soft-spoken, humble and will do anything to help the team. One specific example I can provide was his willingness to sacrifice carries for the betterment of the team last year. Despite being a top Heisman Trophy candidate, former coach Rich Rodriguez thought having Steve line up some in the slot and be more involved in the passing game would be beneficial to the offense. How many players with Steve’s pedigree would be willing to do that? He’s the type of player the Texans can win with and he will do the things necessary to help make the Texans a consistent winner.
Would you describe Slaton as team leader?
Steve is a team leader but he’s not the type of person that is going to be a locker room lawyer or be a distraction off the field. As I mentioned above, he’s soft-spoken and prefers to let his actions speak louder than words. In his dealings with the media he answers questions honestly and sometimes that may give the impression that he’s somewhat cocky. In reality, he is simply a very self-confident athlete like all of the great ones are.
What are your expectations for Steve at the pro level?
I know some have likened him to being a situational player in the pros but I believe he has the ability to be an every down back similar to what Willie Parker is doing with the Steelers. I think an important thing to remember about Steve is the fact that Alex Gibbs is with your organization. Gibbs’ zone-blocking schemes were copied right down to the letter by Trickett at West Virginia and Steve is very familiar running the football in that system. He won’t be lost the first day of mini-camp, that’s for sure. I think another important thing with young NFL backs is their willingness to pass protect. Because West Virginia ran a spread system oftentimes without a tight end in the game Steve was frequently asked to take on that role in the passing game. I know the Texans have some proven running backs in their organization right now but I think Steve Slaton can make that position an even more competitive situation when training camp starts. One thing’s for certain, he is going to get a lot of carries during the preseason due to the number of experienced backs Houston has on its roster. So Texans fans will have the opportunity to get to see what he can do right away.
Which NFL running back, past or present, do you think Steve resembles the most?
That's a tough question. I know here at West Virginia some of the older guys on the coaching staff that have been around the game for a long time often remarked that Steve reminded them a lot of Tony Dorsett when they used to have to prepare for him against Pitt. Like Dorsett, Steve isn’t the biggest back in the world but both can carry the ball more than 30 times a game and both can also catch the ball coming out of the backfield.
My memory of Dorsett was that he didn’t make a lot of cuts before he was at top speed and Steve is very similar. Both have that rare ability of getting to fifth gear very quickly and when Steve is out in the open field he has that extra burst to get by everyone.
If things go well for Steve and he remains healthy I can see the Texans using him much the same way Warrick Dunn was used in Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
Using two words, how would you describe Steve Slaton?