|West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has a full compliment of players to work with for spring ball for the first time since arriving at WVU in 2011.
|Dale Sparks/All-Pro Photography photo
It’s been a busy last couple of weeks for West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.
Earlier this month, Holgorsen put the finishing touches on a 21-player signing class that was ranked 37th in the country by ESPN.com. He also recently completed his defensive coaching staff, naming Tony Gibson defensive coordinator and adding 33-year coaching veteran Tom Bradley to the mix.
Now, he turns his attention to spring football practice, set to begin on Sunday, March 2.
“We’ve had a good six weeks of work,” said Holgorsen, now beginning his fourth season at WVU. “Obviously, the goal at this point in time is for these guys to get bigger, faster, stronger and healthy. I think we’ve accomplished that up to this point.”
The Mountaineers are looking to rebound from a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2013 that saw West Virginia fail to hold leads in a number of games it ended up losing. Depth was the primary culprit, particularly on defense, where the Mountaineers were down to playing true freshmen at several key spots late in the season.
However, this spring West Virginia has a full compliment of scholarship players, really, for the first time since perhaps the 2007 season when the Mountaineers came a game shy of a national championship appearance before soundly defeating Oklahoma in the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
“We have 70 scholarship guys on the roster right now,” noted Holgorsen. “That’s probably 15-20 more than we’ve had in the past going into the spring. We’re excited about the amount of kids that we have to work with.
“The experience that we have coming back makes it a lot easier to line up when we have experience,” Holgorsen added. “You can have a functional spring practice when you can have two, and three-deep at each position.”
Some of the holdovers aren’t quite healthy enough to work out this spring, though, including returning quarterback Clint Trickett
, who is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Trickett was only healthy enough to appear in eight games last season, completing 52.8 percent of his pass attempts for 1,605 yards and seven touchdowns. Trickett led West Virginia to its best win of the season last year against 11th-ranked Oklahoma State, but he also injured his shoulder in that game and his ability to throw the ball down the field was severely impaired for the remainder of the season.
Holgorsen expects the former Florida State transfer to be fully cleared by the beginning of the summer, however.
In the meantime, West Virginia will have just one experienced quarterback available this spring in senior Paul Millard
. The Mountaineers brought in junior college quarterback Skyler Howard
at mid-semester to provide additional competition, and also moved Logan Moore
from wide receiver back to the quarterback spot for more depth.
“We have three guys who are capable of running our offense this spring,” said Holgorsen.
In Howard, West Virginia is adding a mobile quarterback who completed a high percentage of his passes in junior college (nearly 68 percent) for more than 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Holgorsen says he will know a lot more about Howard once they see him on the field running West Virginia’s offense.
“He can work out well,” said Holgorsen of what he knows about Howard right now. “He asks a lot of questions in the meeting room and nothing is more important to him than being a quarterback, which is very important. The players seem to gravitate toward him, and he works out better than most of our skill guys.”
Perhaps the two deepest areas on this year’s football team are at running back and linebacker, where several experienced and proven players are returning.
There are at least seven guys with starting experience at linebacker, including last year’s top tackler Nick Kwiatkoski
, who averaged 8.6 stops per game, and senior Jared Barber
, who ranked third on the team with 71 tackles in 10 games before his season ended against Texas with a knee injury.
is also fully healthy for the first time since suffering a knee injury during practice before the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl.
“Our running back room has a lot of experience and depth,” said Holgorsen. “Dreamius Smith
, Wendell Smallwood
and Dustin Garrison
have played a lot of ball; Andrew Buie
is back and is working hard. Rushel Shell
looks great, is in shape, and we are anxious to see what he can do in pads. Overall, we have five guys that have proven that they can play in pads.”
Another potential area of strength for West Virginia is a secondary that has taken its lumps the last two seasons in the pass-happy Big 12. There are several players returning at safety and corner, meaning the Mountaineers likely won’t have to resort to using true freshmen this fall. Along the defensive line, WVU must find replacements for Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell, but Kyle Rose
, Dontrill Hyman
, Christian Brown
, Darrien Howard
and Eric Kinsey
are among those returning.
On the offensive line, Holgorsen believes he has one of the better guard combos in the country in seniors Quinton Spain
and Mark Glowinski
, with depth developing behind them at the interior spots. However, there will be a lot of attention on the two outside spots at offensive tackle, where West Virginia lost seniors Nick Kindler and Curtis Feigt. Holgorsen said several long-bodied candidates are going to be auditioned this spring. Center will also be a position of focus with Tyler Orlosky
and Stone Underwood
expected to battle it out.
Wide receiver looks to be in much better shape this spring, although Holgorsen is still seeking improved play from that unit. The Mountaineers have their most explosive playmaker returning in senior Mario Alford
, who ended 2013 with a bang by catching eight passes for 215 yards and a touchdown against Iowa State.
Two other proven players are also returning in senior Kevin White
and sophomore Daikiel Shorts
, the two combining to catch seven touchdown passes last season. Holgorsen said having experienced players returning at all four receiver spots is going to make life much easier for the coaching staff this spring.
“As opposed to last year when we had to teach those guys what to do, we can use this spring to teach them how to get better at it,” he said.
Holgorsen is planning to take his team on the road this spring for practices in Wheeling on Saturday, March 22 and in Charleston on Saturday, April 5 that will be open to the general public. Another practice session in Morgantown on Saturday, March 29 will be available for Mountaineer fans to observe.
The spring game will be held on Saturday, April 12 at Milan Puskar Stadium.
With a large number of players returning, Holgorsen is hopeful of putting last year’s disappointments in the rearview mirror.
“Everybody wants to win and nobody wants to win more than me,” he said. “This coaching staff, this team and Mountaineer Nation … I understand how much everybody wants to win and I understand how much it means to everybody.
“There were some disappointing losses last year but I can promise you one thing, we are going to work harder than we did last year and will have more continuity, more experience, and don’t forget, we are playing in one of the most exciting conferences in all of college football,” said Holgorsen. “There were some pretty exciting games out there on Mountaineer Field last season that we came up a couple points short.”
"That is one reason why we are going to open up these practices in the spring. I encourage everybody to come out to those and see what we are doing. I tell you, our guys are working hard and they are excited about spring ball and excited about 2014. I think the product is going to be improved and something you can be proud of.
“There are some exciting guys that have played a lot of ball, that, if I had nothing to do on a Saturday, I would go watch because there are going to be some exciting games out there on Mountaineer Field.”