Stewart: Chemistry No. 1 Goal
Stewart addressed reporters at the team’s annual pre-spring luncheon held inside the Touchdown Terrace at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“There are a lot of people saying that I am a ‘dead man walking’ and I don’t agree with that,” Stewart said. “I think we are professionals here; I have a great staff and I am very blessed with tremendous players, coaches and a supportive administration. Our chemistry has to be one of high value. Every football team has to have great chemistry, and if you don’t have that, then nothing you do is going to matter.”
Stewart said the top objective offensively is for the players to be able to learn the fast-paced system offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen is bringing with him from Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers will have four new coaches on the offensive side of the ball this spring.
“We are going to get on the field and play fast,” Stewart said. “And we need to play hard. The Mountaineers always play hard and play with pride. We are known for being a physical football team and we don’t want to change that. There is also a great effort the players have to emulate on the field and the coaches have to coach with. If you don’t play with a hard edge and a physical demeanor, then it will show.”
On the other side of the ball, Stewart said the defensive staff will have to find replacements for seven key players, four of whom are at this year’s NFL scouting combine.
“We did a great job last season with interceptions,” Stewart said. “People put the ball in the air and we went and got it. That is a compliment to our players. We were No. 2 in the nation in sacks and in third down defense, and we were 22nd in the red zone. If you keep people from scoring, chances are you can win the game if the offense does anything at all. We also were ranked No. 2 nationally in our rushing defense and ranked No. 3 in our scoring defense and total defense.”
Stewart, who will continue to oversee special teams play this fall, said his top priority is finding a punter to replace Gregg Pugnetti.
“This is the fourth year in a row that we need a new punter,” he said. “We are going to have to train a punter; right now it’s going to be Corey Smith – he has the upper hand in punting.”
Stewart said there are other special teams areas that will need extra attention.
“Our kickoff coverage got better and we want to continue to improve on that,” he said. “Our punt and kickoff return needs to have more productivity. And field goal production needs to get a little better.”
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and Holgorsen also made remarks on Wednesday. Casteel said a depth chart is meaningless to him right now.
“This is going to be a big spring for us defensively,” he said. “Losing the caliber kids that we lost this year is big. When you look at who you lost and where at, it is spread throughout the defense. And we lost two of our three down guys.”
The veteran defensive coordinator also cited losses at linebacker and in the secondary, including corner Brandon Hogan, who Casteel termed “arguably our best player on defense” last year.
“Our challenge as a coaching staff and for our players is going to be trying to plug guys into those spots,” Casteel said.
Among the players Casteel welcomes back this spring are a pair of outstanding book ends in seniors Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin. This will be Irvin’s first spring in the program.
“Bruce Irvin was everyone’s hero and he was my hero, too,” said Casteel. “He was probably the reason why we were second in the country in third down defense. Our challenge there is to try and develop him into a kid who can play more snaps for us and not just be a third-down specialist. Bruce is willing to do what he has to do to help the football team.”
Offensively, Holgorsen said he now has a pretty good idea where to place people when practice begins, but the depth chart is wide open.
“We are trying to get a feel for who they are and what kind of work ethic they have,” Holgorsen said. “From and Xs and Os standpoint, we were trying to get everyone on the same page.”
Holgorsen said it is imperative that the players understand how to play fast in his system.
“There are a bunch of kids that know how to run fast, but a lot of them don’t know how to play fast,” he said. “Teaching them to play fast starts with teaching them what they should do. If they know what to do, then they will be able to do that at a quicker tempo.”
Playing with maximum effort is also very important to Holgorsen.
“It starts in the weight room and carries over to morning workouts,” he explained. “Some guys don’t understand what it means to give effort, and we are going to talk to them every day about giving effort. If you don’t give effort you won’t play – it doesn’t matter what your talent level is.”
Additionally, Holgorsen wants his offense to play with a hard edge.
“If doesn’t matter what kind of offense you run, you need to play physical,” he said. “If you throw it every down, you better know how to play physical. These guys defensively understand that, and we are going to try and accomplish that on offense.”
Quarterback Geno Smith was among the returning players visiting with the media on Wednesday afternoon. Smith, who had surgery on his left foot in January, said his foot has healed enough that he will be able to take part in spring practice. Smith was still wearing a protective boot on Wednesday.
Spring drills are set to open on Monday, March 28, and will conclude with the annual Gold-Blue Spring Game benefitting WVU Children’s Hospital on Friday, April 29.
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