Sometimes things are much closer than they first appear and, no, I’m not talking about what you see in your rearview mirror.
For instance, just take a closer look at the West Virginia and Pitt football programs. I happen to know a little bit about both, by the way, having just published a book last fall
about the longtime rivalry.
At first glance, it’s clear that West Virginia has had the much stronger program in recent years, the Mountaineers winning 72.3 percent of their games since 2002 with three BCS bowl wins while not experiencing a single losing season. Pitt, meanwhile, has won 57.8 percent of its games during that same span of time with four losing campaigns and not a single BCS bowl win to its credit.
Yet despite that, the Panthers have had 11 more players drafted by NFL teams and twice as many first round picks than the Mountaineers during the same period of time. Until last year, the two schools played essentially the same schedules until West Virginia dramatically upgraded its slate when it made the move to the Big 12 Conference. Pitt, incidentally, will have a full plate once again this year with Florida State, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Miami, among others, coming on to docket this fall when it joins the ACC.
So, what gives?
It is a matter of coaching? Or, could there be something else at play?
Well, there has been a difference in the two programs – clearly a BIG difference – and it can be found at the position located directly behind center.
During the last 11 years, West Virginia’s run of quarterbacks has included Rasheed Marshall, Pat White, Jarrett Brown and Geno Smith. Now, compare that to this list of Panther QBs: Rod Rutherford, Tyler Palko, Kevin Smith, Pat Bostic, Bill Stull and Tino Sunseri.
You see what I mean.
Therefore, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize how important the quarterback position can be to the overall health and well being of a football program. This year, West Virginia will be drifting into uncharted waters for the first time, really, since 1994 when former coach Don Nehlen started the season alternating between Chad Johnston and Eric Boykin before ultimately settling on Johnston.
Junior Paul Millard
has the edge over redshirt freshman Ford Childress
in experience, although most of his prior game work has come in mop-up situations where he has completed 16 of his 34 career pass attempts for 211 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Childress, meanwhile, has yet to attempt a college pass while true freshman Chavas Rawlins
has only been on campus since January.
Yes, there are many questions surrounding this year’s football team, but none are more pressing than who will end up as West Virginia’s starting quarterback. Earlier this month, Coach Dana Holgorsen took his time before first broaching the subject during his annual media address to kick off spring practice.
“I would assume everybody would like to know about the quarterback position,” Holgorsen said, tongue in cheek. “Well, I am more anxious than you are.”
Of the quarterbacks in the mix (and yes, you can also throw Rawlins in there as well), Millard, from Flower Mound, Texas, has been around the program the longest. He was Smith’s backup the last two seasons, including his freshman year in 2011 when West Virginia won 10 games and defeated Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Millard has been here long enough to understand a little bit about the rich history of WVU football and the great meaning the program has to everyone throughout the state and beyond.
“Me, being an outsider from Texas, it’s been a heck of an experience,” Millard admitted. “You’ve got a million people every Saturday riding your back. Some people would say it’s pressure, but I just feel like you are going out and playing the game that you love and you definitely want to do it for the fans because they’ve got your back and you want to give them a winning (performance).”
Presently, Millard and Childress are splitting first team reps evenly while Holgorsen will continue to publicly state that he is in no hurry to name a starter. And don’t expect one to be named by the end of the spring practice either. In fact, the battle could go well into fall training camp when the Mountaineers start preparing for their Aug. 31 season opener against William & Mary before a starter is named.
“They’re letting me and Ford go at it right now,” Millard said. “We do about 20-30 plays with team a day. One day I will go out there, but we are both taking half and half the reps.”
What little fans have seen so far of Millard leaves them wondering exactly what the Mountaineers have got in this 6-foot-2-inch, 219-pound Texan. He has thrown some interceptions, including a pick-six late in the Connecticut game during his freshman year, and being careless with the football is obviously not one of the traits that Holgorsen is looking for in his starting quarterback.
“I go and play,” Millard said. “Turnovers are part of the game. Obviously, as a quarterback I don’t want to turn the ball over and I hate to turn the ball over. It’s been unfortunate the couple of interceptions that I’ve thrown here. It happens and the fans get angry about it, but I’m definitely working on not turning the ball over and it’s very important that I don’t do it.”
On the other hand, throwing the ball in tight areas means he’s not afraid to throw it. That is a trait all successful quarterbacks must have and this year's starter will be following one of the most successful QBs in school history in Geno Smith, projected by most to be the first quarterback taken in this year’s NFL draft.
Millard has had a sideline view to what Smith has done during his Mountaineer career and he fully understands the large shoes he could be filling.
“When I came to West Virginia University I didn’t know what was going to be thrown at me and Geno was a heck of a player,” said Millard. “But I saw him pick up his own shoes and now he’s out of here so somebody else has to take the reins and I’m working hard each and every day to do that, and to do great things at West Virginia.”
It’s really unfair to judge players when they are playing solely in a backup role, which clearly has been the case for Millard the past two seasons. For all that is said about backups being focused, attentive and all that, it’s different when you prepare for each game knowing that you are not going to play that much. It’s just human nature. But when you are the man, or when much greater responsibility is placed on your shoulders, well, the dynamic changes dramatically. And, yes, the dynamic will be changing dramatically for Millard or whoever wins the job.
“It is definitely different now getting first-team reps and competing,” Millard said. “I want to be great and I want to do great things here – and I always have – it just hasn’t been the case yet. It’s been fun, but it’s also been a heavier load for me, too.”
A much heavier load, indeed, and considering the recent history of outstanding Mountaineer quarterbacks, the bar will be set very high for the next guy standing under center this fall.
And Millard wants to be that guy, continuing the great tradition of West Virginia quarterbacks in Holgorsen’s QB-centric system.
“We’ve had some good ones, especially with this offense, and I think there are going to be more and more names that will probably pop out there for West Virginia quarterbacks, so it’s a heck of an opportunity right now just for me to be competing for the job,” he said.