And then there were zero. Zero - as in the number of days remaining before Mountaineer football practice begins.
There are many unanswered questions about any football team this time of year, and the Mountaineers are no exception. Here are five queries that I have about the 2011 Mountaineers.
1.) Will the offensive line be OK, average or above average?
Granted, offensive line is the least sexy unit on a football team, but its importance is off the charts. The Mountaineers will have two new starters on the right side (Tyler Rader and Quinton Spain) and two other veterans (Donnie Barclay and Geoff Braun) who didn’t play a single snap in the spring because of shoulder surgeries. Braun is also moving from right tackle to left guard.
That’s a tremendous amount of movement to go along with a new position coach in Bill Bedenbaugh. However, the general consensus among the players is that a more simplified approach will lead to improved execution. It’s imperative that this unit protects Geno Smith because of the Mountaineers’ lack of depth at quarterback. My guess is that the offensive line is average at the start of the season, but ascends to above average by November.
2.) Is reserve Paul Millard ready to win?
Millard is the true freshman who finished high school early and enrolled at WVU in January. He was very impressive in spring practice. However, besides the temperature, there are differences between spring practice and the regular season. For example, the coaches don’t stand on the field with you during games in the regular season and tell you what to do. I spent some time with Millard this summer and he’s mature beyond his age, he’s solidly grounded thanks to hanging with his roommate Matt Lindamood. The call here is that Millard can win games by the time the leaves change, but in a perfect world he’s learning on the job late in games after Geno Smith has built a big lead.
3.) Will a running back emerge or will it be a committee of carriers?
Mountaineer football was built on 1,000-yard rushers. Don Nehlen’s teams began the trend and it’s continued with just a few exceptions. However, we enter preseason with no solid choice as to who could be the next grand ground gainer. There’s no position more wide open as practice begins. Vernard Roberts, Daquan Hargrett, and Trey Johnson open camp in a three-man race. However, newcomers Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie will get legitimate looks. Veterans Shawn Alston and Ryan Clarke have yet to impress the new offensive staff.
4.) Will Tyler Bitancurt reemerge as one of the Big East’s best kickers?
Despite the expectation of having a high scoring offense, history tells us that the Mountaineers will be in situations in which field goals are important. Over the last three seasons Dana Holgorsen’s teams have been involved in 14 games that were decided by seven points or fewer. Tyler Bitancurt returns for his junior season, but can he recapture his freshman accuracy? After making 13 of 15 attempts as a freshman to earn first team all-Big East honors, Bitancurt made 10 of 17 last season. It’s important that Tyler rediscovers his stroke for the Mountaineers to win the close games.
5.) Will WVU’s rebuilt defense be able to stop teams?
Yes, the Mountaineers lose seven starters who were very talented. However, the entire WVU defense coaching staff returns intact. Enough said. It’s not a matter of if the unit will be solid; it’s only a matter of when.