Spring Football Preview
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In his first season as the head coach at West Virginia, all Dana Holgorsen did was lead his Mountaineer football program to a 10-win season, the BIG EAST Championship, an overwhelming Orange Bowl victory and a Top 20 national ranking. Now in year two, the bar has been set and expectations are raised.
Each year brings its own set of challenges. West Virginia becomes a member of the Big 12 Conference on July 1, thus presenting an upgraded league schedule, different opponents and extensive travel. The defense has a new staff and a new scheme.
The 3-3-5 stack, used at WVU since the early 2000’s, is out and a more traditional 3-4 is being implemented. The offense returns nine starters and seven are back on defense but building depth is always a constant.
“We are looking forward to spring practice,” Holgorsen said. “It seems like it has been a while since we have been doing football stuff. I am anxious to get out there. I like how the schedule set up. We will go three days a week.
”In spring, you can wear them out, so we try to spread that out over six weeks with one of the weeks being spring break, but that gives you a lot of time to not wear them out, heal them up and just get in as much work as you can.
“So we will go six practices, and then we will break for spring break and come back and finish up the other nine prior the much anticipated spring game, where we hope to have about 30,000 people. I think we were at about 25,000 people last year, and we would like to get that up over 30,000 for next year.
“I like what we got coming back, but we just got to work a little harder to develop some depth and get better on all three sides.”
Heading into the spring, the offense returns nine starters, 15 letterwinners and three others players with at least one game of starting experience.
The WVU offense was one of only two teams in the nation to produce a 4,000-yard passer and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. West Virginia set the school record with 6,104 yards of total offense, the first time finishing with more than 6,000 yards. The Mountaineers threw for 4,509 yards and 31 touchdowns, also school records, first time passing for more than 4,000 yards and tying the touchdown mark. WVU finished with 301 first downs for the year, another school record and scored the fourth-most points in a season, 486.
Starting left tackle Don Barclay and right guard Tyler Rader will have to be replaced. Receiver Brad Starks and inside receivers Devon Brown and Tyler Urban all are gone as well.
Barclay was a three-year starter and earned all-conference and All-America recognition as a senior, and Rader became a starter as a senior. Brown was the Mountaineers’ fourth-leading receiver with 29 catches for 404 yards and a touchdown, Urban finished with 20 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns and Starks had 14 receptions for 174 yards and four touchdowns.
“Offensively, we have nine starters back, and it is going to make a lot more sense to us now,” Holgorsen said. “Having that many starters back, it is more about developing some depth and getting the starters a year better. Everything that we do makes sense. We got goals that we want to improve on obviously, but it is more about just getting these guys better at what they are doing.
“Situational stuff is one thing that stands out offensively, as far as understanding what the specific situations are and how you attack specific things to get better. Third-and-two was something that we weren’t good at. Completing balls in the score zone was something that we weren’t very good at. We got overall objective and we will take it day by day. It’s our whole three-day installation thing that we just got specific things that we want to work on.
“For us to get better offensively, we are going to have yards, and we are going to make plays and all that stuff, but for us to be a good team and to be effective, we got to get better from a situational standpoint. That is what makes you good offensively. We weren’t very good offensively last year when it came to situations.”
Two-year starter Geno Smith returns for his final season as the Mountaineers’ signal caller. The Discover Orange Bowl MVP is coming off his best season and is considered not only one of the top quarterbacks in the nation but one of the top players.
Smith now has 19 wins as a starter. Last season, he completed a single-season school record 346-of-526 passes for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns. His 4,385 yards were the most passing yards by a Mountaineer or a BIG EAST quarterback in a season.
The first team All-BIG EAST honoree threw for 300 or more yards in eight games last season and 400 or more yards in four games, including a school-record 463 yards against LSU. He also threw for multiple-touchdowns in nine games.
Smith was No. 4 nationally in total passing yards, No. 5 in passing yards per game (337.31), No. 8 in total offense (334.7), No. 17 in passing efficiency and No. 23 in points responsible for (15.2).
Sophomore Paul Millard saw limited action as the backup last season, playing in four games. He completed 7-of-15 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. Freshman Ford Childress, a much heralded passer from Houston, Texas, enrolled at WVU in January and is in the mix as well.
At the “B” running back, the top three backs return from last year, while two more were signed in February and will be added to the fold for the fall. Depth is a key issue for this position as was evidenced by the end of the 2011 season when only two running backs were available for the Orange Bowl.
Sophomore Dustin Garrison, the East Coast Athletic Conference Offensive Rookie of the Year, played in 12 games as a true freshman and started eight. He earned the starting nod against Bowling Green and held the job for the remainder of the season until missing the Orange Bowl with a knee injury. He will miss the entire spring season but will be available for preseason camp. He ran for a season-high 291 yards and two touchdowns against Bowling Green.
He led the squad in rushing with 136 carries for 742 yards and six touchdowns. He also was the team’s fifth-leading receiver with 24 catches for 201 yards with a long reception of 36 yards.
With Garrison out for the spring with the knee injury, Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston will handle the bulk of the carries.
Senior Alston played in 11 games and collected 416 yards on 97 carries and a team-leading 12 rushing touchdowns. He had a career-high 110 yards on 14 carries at Rutgers in treacherous snowy conditions and scored two touchdowns. He scored two or more touchdowns in five games last season.
Sophomore Buie earned the starting job when the season started and finished with 51 carries for 172 yards and a touchdown. He registered a season-high 51 yards on seven carries and a touchdown at Maryland and finished with 45 yards against Clemson.
At the “A” back position, veterans Ryan Clarke and Matt Lindamood return for their final seasons. Both are big backs who are good blockers at the point of attack.
Three starters from last year’s offensive line are back this season, along with veteran redshirt senior Josh Jenkins to give four starters returning this spring. The offensive line returns 65 percent of the snaps and 62 percent of the starts from last season.
Redshirt seniors Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are three with the most games played and starts. Madsen has started all 38 games in which he played, Braun has played in 37 games and started 26 and Jenkins has played in 29 games and started 24. Redshirt junior Pat Eger has played in 16 games and started 12, redshirt sophomore Quinton Spain has played in 13 games and started one and redshirt junior Curtis Feigt has played in six games and started one.
Madsen, one of the best centers in the nation, earned All-BIG EAST honors last year and led the team in knockdowns with 55.
Braun, a two-year starter, returns for his final season at right guard. He played left guard last year when he was moved because of Jenkins’ season-ending knee injury. He was used on 912 snaps, only allowed one sack the entire season and had 52 knockdowns, second-best on the squad.
Jenkins, a two-year starter, returns to action at left guard
after redshirting last year. He sustained a knee injury during the spring game and was forced to miss the entire season. As a junior, he was an all-conference performer and led the team in thunderbolt blocks (7) and third in knockdowns (42).
Eger earned the starting job at right tackle during the preseason and finished with 12 starts. He saw action on 880 plays and finished with 24 knockdowns.
Spain, who will start the spring as the starter at left tackle, showed a lot of improvement as the season progressed, earning more playing time and a start at USF. He saw action in 329 plays for the season, including seeing action in a season high 44 plays against Connecticut and 36 at Rutgers.
Redshirt freshmen Marquis Lucas (LT), Brandon Jackson (LG), Russell Haughton-James (RG), along with Feigt (RT) and redshirt senior John Bassler (C) look to break into the rotation. Feigt saw action in six games in 2011, including earning a start at USF.
This area is talented, experienced and explosive once again this season. Record-setters Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, along with Ivan McCartney and J.D. Woods are returning starters and playmakers for the Mountaineer offense. Senior Ryan Nehlen, redshirt freshmen K.J. Myers, Dante Campbell and Cody Clay, along with true freshman Jordan Thompson look to add to the mix.
Austin was No. 8 nationally in receptions per game and No. 23 in receiving yards per game, while Bailey was No. 13 in receiving yards per game. This season, Bailey will line up on the outside on one side of the field, and Austin will be the inside receiver on the other.
Austin, a first team all-conference receiver, collected a school-record 101 catches for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns. He finished with 100 or more yards in five contests last year and had career-high 187 yards against LSU and collected double figure receptions in four games. He had a record-setting performance at the Orange Bowl with 12 catches for 123 yards and four touchdowns.
Bailey, an all-conference performer as well, collected a school-record 1,279 yards and tied the school record with 12 touchdowns. He also set the school record for most 100-yard receiving performances in a season with seven and with five-straight. He had a career-high 178 yards on seven catches and two touchdowns against Connecticut.
McCartney is slated as the second outside receiver, returns after starting 10 games last year. He was the third-leading receiver on the team with 49 catches for 585 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with two 100-yard receiving performances, including a career-high 131 yards on six receptions against Connecticut. Senior Ryan Nehlen played in all 13 games last year and looks to have a breakout season in his final year.
Moving from the outside and filling the other inside receiver spot will be redshirt senior J.D. Woods. He showed a lot of improvement as the season progressed and was one of the starting receivers over the last few games. He finished with seven catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, including 38 yards on four catches at USF.
Heading into the spring, the defense returns seven starters, 17 letterwinners and five others players with at least one game of starting experience.
“Defensively, it is going to be more like we were offensively last year,” Holgorsen said. “It is new coaches, a new scheme and it is kind of a fresh start for a whole bunch of defensive players. Last year, we didn’t have any starters offensively. We took everybody, we evaluated them and we ended up getting some guys that hadn’t played in the past like Ryan Nehlen, Willie Millhouse and Tyler Rader and some guys like that and gave them a fresh start. We kind of want that same thing to happen to us defensively. Everybody’s slate has been wiped clean, and they can get out there and show these new guys what they got.
“We want to, schematically, hang on to some tricks and all that. Coverage wise stuff is going to be relatively similar, but the front is going to be different. The fits are going to be different and how they are going to be coached is going to be different. We are looking forward to getting out there and everybody is pretty excited. If you gauge out team with morale and with excited, I think it is as high as it could possibly be. So those guys are anxious to be coached.”
The WVU defense showed improvement over the course of last season as the players gained more experience. The Mountaineers were No. 11 nationally in pass efficiency defense, No. 29 in sacks, No. 33 in total defense, first down defense and third-down defense, No. 35 in pass defense, No. 47 in tackles for loss, No. 55 in rushing defense and No. 61 in scoring defense.
However, the defense lost five of the team’s top defensive playmakers from last season, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller off the defensive line, Najee Goode from the linebacker unit and Keith Tandy and Eain Smith from the secondary.
Irvin, who earned All-America honors, and Miller finished their WVU careers as two of the top five defensive players in school history in sacks and tackles for loss. Miller completed his career No. 2 in sacks (27.5) and tackles for loss (42.5), while Irvin was No. 4 in sacks (22.5) and No. 7 in tackles for loss (29). Goode, a first team All-BIG EAST performer finished with 157 tackles, eight sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and seven pass breakups, and Smith, a second team selection, tallied 155 tackles and 10 pass breakups. Tandy, a two-time first team honoree and All-America honoree as a junior, finished his career in the school’s Top 10 in interceptions (13) and was tied for No. 6 in pass breakups (24).
Two of the three starters from last year return in Jorge Wright and Will Clarke. A starter at tackle has to be identified this spring and depth along the entire line has to be established. Trevor Demko, J.B. Lageman and Shaq Rowell have seen limited action and will have a chance this spring to move up the depth chart. Redshirt sophomores Derrick Bryant and Ted Rietschlin, redshirt freshman Kyle Rose and true freshman Imarjaye Albury will look compete for time.
Wright, who has played in 34 games and started 13, returns as the starter at nose tackle. He finished with 38 tackles, including 21 unassisted tackles, 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He had a season-high five tackles at Rutgers and against Louisville.
Clarke, who started 11 games last season at defensive end as a redshirt sophomore, returns as the starter for the second year. He collected 34 tackles, including 19 solo stops, two sacks, five tackles for loss and a pass breakup. He finished with a season high nine tackles, including eight solo tackles and a tackle for loss at USF and had a sack at Rutgers and against Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Lageman has seen action in 11 games in his WVU career. Last year, he played in seven games and finished with four tackles. Rowell played in 10 games and collected eight tackles and Demko played in four games and assisted on three tackles.
West Virginia used three linebackers in their past schemes but now will need to add a fourth one to its 3-4 alignment. The Sam and Will linebackers positions will be inside, and the Buck and Star will be the outside positions. The players from last year’s Mike linebacker position will be at the Sam linebacker, the Sam from last year is now the Will, the Will is now the Buck and the spur safety position has been relocated to the Star linebacker position.
Jared Barber, Josh Francis, Doug Rigg and Jewone Snow all return with starting experience and Tyler Anderson, Troy Gloster, Donovan Miles and Taige Redman all have game experience.
Starting with the outside backer positions, Jewone Snow is the starter at the Buck linebacker position. He had offseason surgery on both shoulders and will miss the entire spring. He compiled 42 tackles , 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss and returned a fumble 83 yards. He registered seven or more tackles in five games, including nine tackles against Bowling Green and eight at Syracuse and at Rutgers.
Francis played in eight games and compiled nine tackles, including seven solo stops, and Anderson played in all 13 games and recorded 17 tackles, including four tackles for loss.
At the Star linebacker, Terence Garvin, who has played in 34 games and is a two-year starter, along with redshirt sophomore Wes Tonkery and true sophomore Shaq Petteway who will play at that position.
Garvin started in all 11 games in which he played last year as a junior and was the team’s fourth-leading tackler with 72 tackles, including 43 unassisted, 3.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and two interceptions. He had seven or more tackles in four games and had a career-high 14 tackles, including nine solo stops and a tackle for loss against Pitt. He hurt his knee at USF, had surgery in December and will miss the entire spring.
Tonkery played in nine games and finished with four solo tackles, including one for loss. He replaced Garvin as the starter against Clemson. Petteway played in 12 games and registered eight tackles, including five unassisted.
Moving inside to Sam linebacker, Barber is slated to start at the beginning of spring. He played in 12 games last year and started the final two. He finished with 23 tackles, including 13 unassisted stops, two tackles for loss and three pass breakups. He had a season high six tackles, including five solo stops and a tackle for loss against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. He also had four tackles against Pitt and three against Norfolk State and at Cincinnati.
Miles played in 12 games and finished with 10 tackles, while Redman saw action in all 13 games and collected two tackles.
At the Will, Rigg is a starter for the second year. He played in 11 games last year and finished with 30 tackles, one sack, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and recovered a fumble. He registered a game high nine tackles against LSU and had four tackles, including a sack at USF. He recovered a fumble at USF that started the game-winning drive, and forced a fumble against Clemson that led to a 99-yard return for a touchdown to change the game.
Gloster saw limited action in his first year on the field, and Bruce redshirted last season.
Travis Bell (FS), Darwin Cook (SS), Brodrick Jenkins (FCB) and Pat Miller (BCB) are slotted to start in the secondary this spring, and all have starting experience. Ishmael Banks, Matt Moro and Avery Williams have seen action.
At strong safety, Cook returns after starting at boundary safety last year. He has seen action in 26 games and started 13. He had a solid sophomore season, finishing second on the team in tackles with 85, including 51 solo stops, four pass breakups, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He had double figure tackles in three games, including a season-high 11 against Norfolk State and at Rutgers and his play of the year was a 99-yard fumble return against Clemson which changed the momentum of the Orange Bowl.
Adding depth behind Cook are true freshmen Karl Joseph and Sean Walters and junior William Marable.
At free safety, Bell played in 11 games and started one. He finished with 10 tackles, broke up a pass and recovered a fumble. He collected a season-high six tackles and had a pass breakup at Cincinnati in his first career start.
Moro was used primarily on special teams but did see action on defense. He played in seven games and finished with six tackles. Banks played in all 13 games, added depth at left cornerback and was used on passing downs in nickel situations. He finished with 11 tackles, including nine solo stops and had a season-high three tackles against LSU.
At field corner, Jenkins added depth last year and was used in passing downs. He showed improvement during the year and took over the starting job toward the end of last season. He finished with 27 tackles, including 22 unassisted, two tackles for loss, two interceptions and had eight pass breakups. He had a season-high six tackles, including five solo stops at Cincinnati, two interceptions at Rutgers and five solo tackles against Clemson.
Williams and Lawrence Smith will battle for the backup position.
At boundary cornerback, Miller played in 13 games and started nine last year. He enters the spring as the starter. He was the team’s fifth-leading tackler with 66 tackles, including 50 unassisted tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three pass breakups. He had a season-high 11 tackles at Maryland, including a tackle for loss and registered an interception in each of the last two games, including returning one 52 yards for a touchdown at USF.
Redshirt freshman Terrell Chestnut and redshirt senior Cecil Level, who saw action on special teams last year will battle for playing time as backups.
Last year’s special teams return units showed a lot of improvement from the previous year. The coverage units, punting and field goal teams showed signs of outstanding play at times but lacked consistency. This spring will be used to identify a long snapper, work on technique, tighten up coverage schemes and build depth at each position.
“I am excited about the specialists we have returning,” Holgorsen said “Tavon is a returning All-American guy. Tyler (Bitancurt) has won some games around here for us. Corey (Smith) needs to work on some consistency, but he pretty much won the Pitt game for us.”
The Mountaineer return units were ranked among the best in the nation, the punt return unit at No. 20 nationally and kickoff return at No. 26.
Austin, an All-American return specialist, comes back for his final season after leading the nation in all-purpose yards (198.0). He was ranked No. 6 nationally in punt returns, averaging 14.1 yards per return, and No. 20 in kickoff returns, averaging 26.1 yards per return. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, a 100-yard return against Marshall and a 90-yarder at USF. Austin had a season-long 64 yard punt return against Norfolk State.
Bailey also will return kickoffs. He returned four kickoffs for 67 yards last year with a long of 26 yards. Brodrick Jenkins saw action at both return positions last year and will be looked at this spring.
Tyler Bitancurt returns for his final season after connecting on 16-of-22 field goals and 61-of-63 extra point attempts. He finished with double-figure scoring games seven times, including hitting a bowl record 10-of-10 extra point attempts against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. He hit a season-long field goal of 45 yards against Bowling Green and hit the game winner with no time left at USF.
Bitancurt and Smith handled kickoffs last season and do so again this season. Michael Molinari was the team’s holder, and a replacement at long snapper has to be established. Redshirt sophomore Jerry Cooper will be evaluated this spring and John DePalma, a highly rated prospect from Georgia, was signed in March and will be with the team in the summer.
Smith and Molinari will compete for the punting duties. Smith was the punter for the first five games, then Molinari was inserted for the Connecticut game and held the position until the Pitt game, when he was replaced by Smith, who did the job until the end of the season. Smith punted 26 times, averaged 39.7 average, had a long of 62 yards, finished with nine punts of 50 yards or more and placed six inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He was named the BIG EAST Special Teams Player of the Week for the Pitt game, averaging 57.2 yards per punt and placed two inside the Pitt 20-yard line. Molinari had 30 punts for a 37.2 average, had a long of 58 yards and placed 11 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
The 2012 schedule will present a more difficult challenge as changes in conferences bring a higher level of competition. The Mountaineers open the season with non-conference matchups at home with Marshall and Maryland and a neutral site contest with James Madison at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
WVU plays its first-ever Big 12 game on Sept. 29 against Baylor at home and face Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU at Milan Puskar Stadium. The Mountaineers travel to Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech.
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