By Wendell Barnhouse
MORGANTOWN, West Virginia – Dana Holgorsen had a good idea that what happened last season might happen.
As a former offensive coordinator with experience in the Big 12 Conference, he knew what awaited West Virginia when the school joined the league in 2012. The Mountaineers were coming off an impressive Orange Bowl victory and they then roared to a 5-0 start. Since then, West Virginia has stumbled, going 6-14 including last season's 4-8 record.
"We knew going into Big 12 play several years ago that you better have depth and depth that can compete at a high level," said Holgorsen, who estimates that in 2012 the roster was about 20 players shy of having players capable of competing in the Big 12. "But going into Year 3, I think we've never been more excited about going into a season as we are right now.
"I think our players in our locker room understand what the Big 12 is all about. They understand how challenging it is."
Last season also turned into a perfect (or imperfect) storm. The offense struggled to replace NFL-caliber players in quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The Mountaineers used three different quarterbacks and the skill players struggled with the inconsistency and learning Holgorsen's system.
"I don't anticipate those dynamics ever happening again in the next 30 years of coaching - or however long I am fortunate to be able to coach," he said. "You had three new (offensive) coaches that have never been with us before. We had the issues at the quarterback position that have been very well documented. You had six or seven skill kids that have been in the program for their first year. That's just a dynamic that is not good."
Holgorsen made his coaching reputation as an offensive coordinator who develops quarterbacks. Senior Clint Trickett, who arrived last season after transferring from Florida State, battled through injuries. He led the Mountaineers to their best victory in 2013, an upset of Oklahoma State.
Trickett had offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder, has more experience running the offense and was named the starting quarterback.
"Clint will be able to take it to another level. He understands what it takes to be successful," Holgorsen said. "He needs to stay healthy. I think that's obviously the biggest thing."
The Mountaineers were 80th nationally in points scored (26.3) and 100th in points allowed (33.3) last season. A more productive defense and a stingier defense could flip those numbers. Instead of getting outscored by a touchdown per game, West Virginia hopes that it is better prepared to compete in the Big 12.
"The style of ball that exists in the Big 12, although it's a very exciting style of play, you're going to end up taking more snaps," Holgorsen said. "So when guys get tired, you better be able to replace those guys with guys that go in and perform at a very high level. I think we're at that point right now. We have 55 guys on our team that have played Big 12 football. So that just means that there are guys that have played that are experienced and should continue to get better each and every year."
Coach: Dana Holgorsen, fourth season.
2013: 4-8 overall, 2-7 in Big 12.
Bowl: Did not participate.
Returning starters: 6 on offense, 7 on defense.
Key players: Senior QB Clint Trickett, senior WR Kevin White, senior RB Dreamius Smith, senior WR Mario Alford, soph. WR Dakiel Shorts senior guard Quinton Spain, soph. corner back Daryl Worley, junior LB Isaiah Bruce, junior safety Karl Joseph, senior DE Shaquille Riddick, freshman S Dravon Henry, senior P Nick O'Toole.
Three Points To Ponder
1. Tony Gibson takes over as defensive coordinator, the fourth different coach at that position over the next four seasons. That sort of personnel turnover in the coaching staff is never a positive. The Mountaineers also brought in former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley, who has three decades of experience. West Virginia has improved its speed, depth and talent on defense and that needs to start showing up on the field.
2. If the offense is going to regain its explosiveness, senior quarterback Clint Trickett will have to stay healthy and distribute to a number of play makers. The wide receivers have promise and should benefit from stability at quarterback. Senior Kevin White, senior Mario Alford and sophomore Dakiel Shorts form one of the better receiving trios in the Big 12. Replacing running back Charles Sims will be a challenge but the Mountaineers have a number of capable candidates – Dreamius Smith, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie and Wendell Smallwood.
3. West Virginia's first four games of the season: vs. Alabama (11-2 last season), Towson (13-3, lost FCS championship game), Maryland (7-6, beat West Virginia 37-0 last season) and Oklahoma (11-2). The Mountaineers' four games to start to season are as challenging as any FBS team will face. Erasing last season's memories – the program's first without a bowl since 2001 – will be difficult if this year's team gets off to a stumbling start.
Senior running back Dreamius Smith on the team's running backs:
"We've got talent. We'll use the talent. Coaches see the talent and they're going to play the talent. You see it as well as we see it. We've got a pretty talented backfield back there and we're going to use every weapon that we can. Everyone can do something out there that involves us. (The coaches are) going to get us out there however many times they can a game. They'll put people in different positions and situations and find ways to make the best of it."
Numbers To Note
In 2013 the Mountaineers ranked 79th (out of 125 teams) in the FBS in red zone offense (80 percent), 114th in third-down conversions (39.1 percent) and 120th in turnovers (32). … Of the 194 receptions by receivers (not running backs) from last season's team, players who had 162 of those catches return. … The Mountaineers allowed 37.7 points per game in their nine Big 12 games last season. … West Virginia was ninth in the Big 12 with just 16 sacks last year. … Five opposing Big 12 quarterbacks passed for at least 322 yards, four had at least three touchdowns, and four completed at least 25 passes against the Mountaineers' defense. … West Virginia's opponents in 2014 finished the 2013 season with a combined win-loss record of 97-59.
|Aug. 30||Alabama (Atlanta, Ga.)|
|Sept. 13||at Maryland|
|Oct. 11||at Texas Tech*|
|Oct. 25||at Oklahoma State*|
|Nov. 8||at Texas*|
|Nov. 20||Kansas State*|
|Nov. 29||at Iowa State*|