There is a buzz of activity going on inside the Milan Puskar Center today as West Virginia prepares for the start of fall camp on Thursday.
Dana Holgorsen, beginning his fourth year at WVU, said his team is prepared for the immense challenge that is ahead of them, beginning on August 30 when the Mountaineers face Alabama in the Chic-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.
“We’ve never been more excited about going into a season as we are right now,” Holgorsen said. “We play one of the toughest, if not the toughest, schedule in the country.”
With non-conference games against Alabama and Maryland, a home matchup against last year FCS runner-up Towson, and a very difficult Big 12 slate that begins in earnest in Morgantown on September 20 against likely preseason top 5 Oklahoma, the Mountaineers are going to have to perform at a high level just to keep their heads above water.
Holgorsen cleared up his quarterback situation earlier this summer by naming Clint Trickett
the starter heading into preseason camp, and his running back room got a boost on Tuesday afternoon when Wendell Smallwood
was cleared to return to the team.
Among the 55 returning players with Big 12 experience, how Trickett performs under center will be the most closely scrutinized aspect of the team this fall. Inconsistent play and an overall lack of leadership from the quarterback position was a major factor in West Virginia’s 4-8 record last season – the Mountaineers’ worst record since going 3-8 during Rich Rodriguez’s first season in 2001.
Trickett played well at times when he was healthy, but he spent most of the year nursing a shoulder injury sustained in the Oklahoma State victory. It his Holgorsen’s hope that Trickett can stay healthy and develop into the leader that this year’s offense desperately needs.
“The leadership aspect of it is something that we were missing,” explained Holgorsen, adding that Trickett has displayed leadership qualities in the past and comes from an outstanding football pedigree. “People follow him. He understands what it takes to be successful. He needs to stay healthy and right now we’re talking to him about the specific things that he can do to be able to protect himself, which is what every quarterback needs to do out there.”
One way Trickett can protect himself is by handing the ball off to a bevy of talented running backs – five of them possessing substantial major college experience heading into this season.
|Running back Dustin Garrison tries on his helmet Thursday afternoon at the Milan Puskar Center. West Virginia hits the field Thursday evening for the start of preseason camp.
||All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Last week during Big 12 media day in Dallas, Holgorsen said that senior Dreamius Smith
is the No. 1 running back heading into fall camp, but Dustin Garrison
, Andrew Buie
and Rushel Shell
will also contend. According to the coach, Shell, a Pitt transfer, has gotten himself into great shape this summer.
“He looks phenomenal right now,” said Holgorsen, adding that the running back position “needs to be versatile and needs to do a lot of different things. We feel like we have a lot of guys that can do that.”
How much defenses will be able to stack the box to stop the running game will be determined by how well the Mountaineers can throw the football down the field this fall. Last year, West Virginia was not very good in that area, partly because of inconsistent play at quarterback and partly because of a young and inexperienced receiver corps that didn’t have a single 50-catch player – something that has never happened during Holgorsen’s 10 years of calling plays.
Up front, West Virginia has a pair of outstanding guards returning in seniors Quinton Spain
and Mark Glowinski
, while sophomore Tyler Orlosky
appears to be a capable option at center. Heading into camp, promising sophomore Adam Pankey
will man the blindside tackle position while junior Marquis Lucas
is listed No. 1 at right tackle.
Offensive line coach Ron Crook has consistently stated that he would like to have at least eight players ready to go for the five offensive line spots when the Mountaineers take the field against Alabama. Whether or not he can get there remains to be seen.
On the defensive side of the football, first-year coordinator Tony Gibson did quite a bit of tweaking during the spring. Eight players with starting experience are returning, but only three of them are in the same positions as last year. Defensive end Kyle Rose
has moved to nose, spur Isaiah Bruce
is now a sam linebacker, will linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski
is now at mike, buck Brandon Golson
has moved to will and free safety Karl Joseph
is now listed at bandit safety.
Joining Joseph in the backend are returning corners Daryl Worley
and senior Ishmael Banks
, while one of the most interesting position battles that will take place this fall will be at free safety between returners Jeremy Tyler
, Ricky Rumph
and touted true freshman Dravon Henry
, the No. 1-rated high school player in Pennslyvania last year.
There will also be a spirited battle at defensive end, where sophomore Noble Nwachukwu
will go up against Gardner-Webb transfer Shaquille Riddick.
Sophomore Christian Brown
, who appeared in just two games last year, could be the space-eater the Mountaineer defense has been seeking since Holgorsen took over in 2011.
Another thing Holgorsen has been seeking is overall defensive depth - something he finally has this year.
“One of the challenges that we knew going into Big 12 play several years ago is you better have depth, and you better have depth that can compete at a high level,” he said. “Probably the biggest difference in the conference that we used to be in and the conference that we’re in now is that needs to happen if you want to win.
“When guys get injured – and they will – you need guys to step in and perform at a high level,” Holgorsen continued. “The style of ball that exists in the Big 12, although it’s a very exciting style of play, you’re going to end up taking more snaps. So when guys get tired you better be able to replace those guys with guys that go in and perform at a high level.”
The Mountaineers are in great shape in the kicking game, with sophomore place kicker Josh Lambert
and junior punter Nick O’Toole returning. Both have the potential to be difference makers. West Virginia’s return game should also be improved.
Overall, Holgorsen believes everyone in the program now has a full and complete understanding of what it takes to be successful in the Big 12.
“You better be ready to go each and every week,” he warned.
That begins Thursday evening. Practice is closed to the general public.
Tweet us some of your preseason thoughts using the hashtag #wvufootball
Let's go Mountaineers!