Change is clearly in the air over at the Milan Puskar Center. Downstairs, construction work continues on the brand new weight room that should be good to go sometime later this summer.
Upstairs, the Mountaineers are getting ready for another football season without No. 1, No. 3 and No. 12 hanging around the complex - those three guys, of course, being Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Geno Smith.
Guys graduate, leave early for the pro draft and move on – that’s part of life. Another part of life is for their supporting cast to step up, assume a much greater role and make their mark in the program.
And junior running back Andrew Buie
is one of those supporting players whose time is now. The Jacksonville, Fla., resident had a pretty solid sophomore campaign in 2012, running for 851 yards and scoring seven touchdowns while ranking ninth in the Big 12 with an average of 65.5 yards per game.
He ran for a career-high 207 yards and scored two TDs in West Virginia’s big road win at Texas and he also finished the regular season with a 100-yard, two-touchdown effort in West Virginia’s blowout victory over Kansas.
In between, there were other positive efforts against Texas Tech (71 yards) and Oklahoma State (53 yards) as well as some pedestrian performances against TCU (40 yards) and Iowa State (23 yards). Buie actually took a backseat to Austin in the Oklahoma and Iowa State games, watching the wide receiver run for a school-record 344 yards against the Sooners as a mid-game running back replacement and then watching him play most of the following week’s game against the Cyclones in the backfield as well.
Now, it’s Buie’s turn.
“We went through a whole off-season program and that was pretty much the lesson of our story – adapt and change. Change is going to happen. Can you adapt? It’s the ones that can’t adapt that get left behind,” Buie told a coterie of reporters earlier this spring. “We knew change was going to happen and we knew it was not going to be the same team that it was last year, so we know we have to work that much harder, and we know we still have a long road ahead of us.”
Getting down that path might actually be a lot easier for the guys in the program this year because they don’t have The Big Three to lean on, plus, they also understand that very little is expected of them. For a WVU football program that is used to winning – and winning big – that’s much more effective than hearing a bunch of motivational speeches from their coaches.
“Teams are still not going to respect us because they don’t see 12, 1 or 3 anymore,” said Buie. “I feel like if we continue to stick together and work hard we’re going to be where we need to be when the season comes around.”
Sometimes, less-talented teams can out play more-talented teams simply by sticking together and working for a common cause. Whether or not that happens this year remains to be seen, but Buie does believe this group of Mountaineer players will be much closer than last year’s.
“Guys care about each other more,” he said. “It matters to them more to see the guy next to them fail, versus last year people may have been like, well, I’m still doing well so whatever. It feels like we’re all at the bottom fighting and we all want our respect, so that makes us all draw together because none of us have our respect yet.”
That includes Buie, who has accumulated 1,400 all-purpose yards and scored eight touchdowns in 24 career games for the Mountaineers. He has played at Texas, he’s played against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, TCU and the rest of the Big 12, and he played in the 2012 Orange Bowl against Clemson, so he knows what it’s all about. Now it’s on him to impart some of that wisdom on the rest of his teammates.
That means when things are not going well – as it often does during a long football season – he has an obligation to help pick up the players who are struggling and get them through it.
“The biggest thing is you try to keep a guy from getting down on himself too much because a lot of guys put a lot of pressure on (themselves) to step into that spotlight,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure, especially coming out of high school or coming off a redshirt. Whereas last year you only worried about just getting better, now you have to go from being a kid to stepping up and being the man of the house.
“That’s how it is and some guys put a lot of pressure on themselves, so the biggest thing is you’ve got to let them know you are going to have your good days and you are going to have your bad days, but it’s the bad days that you have to work through and get better,” he added.
Buie went through something similar last year as a sophomore. In fact, he said whenever he pops in last year’s game tapes it surprises him how much growth he experienced during the course of the season.
“That’s the craziest thing,” he admitted. “To watch myself from the beginning of the season to the back I had become toward the end of the season … I was a totally different kid, but it’s the experience that got me there. I just try to take what I learned and try and help (my teammates) speed up the process to get them playing at a higher level faster - knowing when to be patient, knowing when to hit it, or on this play you are looking for this read … just small stuff that helped me play faster.”
Buie believes he is in a pretty good place right now at this point in his career.
“I feel like I am to a point where I can play pretty fast and understand what’s going on to where when a play is called I’m not thinking about what I’ve got to do,” he explained. “The process has just changed. It’s gone from, what do I need to do to how I need to get it done now.”
More generally, he’s gone from being a kid playing football for the Mountaineers (perhaps a little earlier than he probably should have) to a man about to be playing football for the Mountaineers this fall.
“I did a lot of growing up over these last couple of years. Some of this stuff you can only get with time,” he explained. “I try to let a lot of the younger kids know all the experiences and stuff I’ve been through so they can get better down the road.
“That’s the ultimate goal.”