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July 17, 2007

Competition fuels West Virginia dynamic duo

Big East Media Day Photo Gallery | Media Day Notebook

NEWPORT, R.I. Steve Slaton and Pat White couldn't complete their hour-long media conference Tuesday without getting into a debate.

Were the West Virginia teammates squabbling over who would score more touchdowns this season? Nope.

Were they arguing about which player was more likely to win the Heisman Trophy? Wrong again.

The two speedsters instead were boasting about their respective skills at Bubble Breaker, a video game on each of their cell phones.

"I will destroy you," Slaton said as soon as White mentioned the Tetris-style game during the Big East Media Day at the Hotel Viking.

"I'm better," White responded. "What's your average?"

"That doesn't count, man," Slaton replied. "My little brother played and it messed up my stats."

That conversation reflected the friendly rivalry that exists between the Mountaineers' two Heisman Trophy candidates.

This dynamic duo can turn anything into a competition. White and Slaton spend much of their spare time challenging each other over tasks as mundane as who can get up the fastest from a stretching exercise.

Once the game starts, however, their rivalry ends.

"Most of our competition is off the field," White said. "When we're in the game, we're competing against who we're playing. We're not competing against each other."

That attitude explains why Slaton and White's teammates don't worry about any personality clashes that could result from having two Heisman candidates on the same roster. The two West Virginia juniors have joined Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, Southern California quarterback John David Booty and Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan as preseason Heisman favorites.

"If their individual goals were bigger than their team goals, I'd have a concern," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I don't think that will ever be the case for those two guys."

Slaton and White instead are trying to make the most of this rare opportunity to play in a backfield that features two of the game's most electrifying players. Slaton and White combined to run for 2,963 yards and 34 touchdowns last year to help give West Virginia the nation's second-ranked rushing offense (behind only Navy).

"We're definitely having fun with it," Slaton said. "Pat's a great talent who's fun to watch. It's fun to be right next to him. I know he's going to make a play. He knows I'm going to make a play. I feel like a fan sometimes when I'm playing with him."

Slaton at least admitted it would mean a great deal to win the Heisman and be known as the greatest player in college football.

White downplayed the importance of claiming college football's greatest individual prize.

"It's a great accolade, but Troy Smith won the Heisman last year and went in the fifth round," White said. "I think a national championship is where you want to be."

White and Smith have plenty in common.

Smith was known primarily as a running quarterback before maturing as a passer during his senior year at Ohio State. White rushed for 1,219 yards and 18 touchdowns last year, though he also completed nearly two-thirds of his passes.

White received some advice from Smith late last season, though the West Virginia junior didn't necessarily agree with the former Buckeye's message.

"He told me to stop running so much, to sit back in the pocket and pass, but that's not my game," White said. "I'm going to continue to play the way I play and do whatever it takes to win.

"He was just trying to look out for my body and keep me healthy. It's a grind week in and week out, being a running quarterback. Anytime a defender can get a chance to knock your helmet off, he's going to try his hardest. He was more worried about my safety."

Then again, they can't hit what they can't catch.

White finished 16th in the nation in rushing last year and was the only quarterback to rank among the top 80 players in that category. Slaton, arguably the top breakaway threat in the game, ranked fourth in the nation in rushing and gained a school-record 1,744 yards.

"They're like a two-headed monster," Rutgers defensive tackle Eric Foster said. "If you kill one, you've got to worry about the other one. If you have one shut down, that's not going to get the job done. And I don't know if you can shut down both."

White and Slaton have accomplished so much that it's hard to imagine neither entered college as an elite recruit. Both signed with West Virginia as three-star prospects.

Recruited by many schools to play defense, Slaton wasn't even the most heralded running back to sign with West Virginia in 2005. That honor instead belonged to Jason Gwaltney, a former five-star prospect who's no longer on the team.

White struggled to get schools to pursue him as a quarterback, and actually was known as much for his baseball potential as his football skills. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim drafted him in the fourth round as a center fielder.

"I think that goes back to beauty being in the eye of the beholder," Rodriguez said. "When I watched Steve Slaton in his high-school highlight film, it was 45 seconds to a minute. I said, 'Who is this guy?' I remember seeing (Slaton) run down the sidelines. It looked like everybody had an angle, and all of a sudden nobody had an angle. Pat White was the same way. People evaluate everybody a certain way, but after watching one game of him as a quarterback in high school, I thought he was perfect for our system.

"In my mind, they were five-star recruits."

The two teammates used that relative lack of attention as a motivational ploy. Slaton quickly proved he belonged by outrunning all his teammates during preseason drills as a freshman, while White showed off his leadership skills by the way he vocally encouraged and scolded receivers while quarterbacking the scout team.

So it came as little surprise when Slaton and White arrived on the national stage midway through the 2005 season during a memorable comeback victory over Louisville. Slaton scored six touchdowns after halftime and White came off the bench in the fourth quarter as West Virginia rallied from a 17-point deficit to win 46-44 in triple overtime.

That never-say-die performance illustrated the competitive fire that has been evident in each player since.

Who's more competitive? That's one issue in which White will happily concede to his teammate.

"We both love to compete," White said, "but I think (Slaton) hates losing more than he likes winning."

That apparently holds true whether he's cradling a football or a cell phone.

Big East Media Day Photo Gallery | Media Day Notebook

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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