MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – A year ago in mid-October, West Virginia thought it had the Big 12 Conference all figured out. The Mountaineers grabbed headlines with a 70-63 shootout victory over Baylor in its Big 12 debut and then traveled to Austin, giving Texas its first loss of the season.
And then, the season came apart like a cardboard box in a downpour. The 5-0 start was canceled by a five-game losing streak. West Virginia’s defense was gashed for 248 points in those four losses. Victories over Iowa State and Kansas put the Mountaineers in the post-season but they lost to former Big East Conference foe Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“Everything just went downhill last year,” senior safety Darwin Cook said. “All that last year, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore.”
But last year happened.
“Yeah, reality,” sophomore wide receiver K.J. Myers admitted.
Last year’s over-the-edge plunge provides the starting point for this season.
“The seniors, we’re putting the onus ourselves,” Cook said. “We talk all the time. We’re the type of team where we can get on each other. If you see somebody mess up, cuss ‘em out. Say anything. Get me going. I might be mad but I’m gonna make a play. I feel like that’s the type of team we’ve got this year.”
Cook is one of seven returning starters on a defensive unit that finished last in the Big 12 allowing 38.1 points per game. While the offense will be missing play makers like quarterback Geno Smith plus receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, the defense needs to show considerable improvement.
“Our senior leaders, we experienced a bad season last year,” senior defensive end Will Clarke said. “We want to prove to ourselves and to the nation that we’re a better team. The seniors know that it’s our last year in college football. We want to show the younger guys what it takes to win at this level.”
For the Mountaineers, what is past is past. But the trials and tribulations of last season created a humble and hungry team.
“That gives us a chip on our shoulder, a big chip,” said Myers, who wants to step forward and become the team’s top receiver this season. “That makes us practice harder and work. We know how the season can turn and we definitely don’t want to have a season like that this year.”
Three-Man QB Race
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has a reputation of developing productive quarterbacks. Going into this season, he needs to pick one of three candidates to replace the prolific Geno Smith.
Redshirt freshman Ford Childress, junior Paul Millard and redshirt junior transfer Clint Trickett have been getting an equal number of snaps so far in practice. Trickett transferred last spring from Florida State where he played in 17 games and made two starts. He has more game experience than Childress or Millard but less experience in West Virginia’s system.
“We’re close to figuring that out,” Holgorsen said of choosing a starter. “Millard and Ford have elevated their game. I think they’ve gotten better, which isn’t making our job any easier. Those decisions are not easy. ... It affects kids' lives. These are guys that are working hard, and someone is going to be the guy and somebody is not. It's hard to deal with if you're not the guy."
* A possible measuring stick for West Virginia’s defense this season is provided by cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell. He says that the keys to slowing the Big 12’s explosive offenses is forcing turnovers, get nine tackles for loss per game and limit the opposition to less than 100 yards rushing per game.
* Problems at cornerback were probably the biggest reason the West Virginia defense struggled last season. Improvement at the position took a hit when sophomore Nana Kyeremeh had to undergo shoulder surgery and will miss the season. He played in all 13 games last season.
* West Virginia’s offensive line is in a state of flux. The Mountaineers have to replace three starters, including center Joey Madsen. In Holgorsen’s offense, the center has to perfect the shotgun snap. Redshirt freshman Tyler Orlosky will likely be the starter. WVU also has a new offensive line coach in Ron Crook, who last season was at Stanford. Crook replaced Bill Bedenbaugh, who was hired to be the o-line coach at Oklahoma.
Coach Dana Holgorsen on running back Charles Sims, who is eligible to play for the Mountaineers after transferring from Houston:
“He’s a good player. He’s very well rounded. His ball skills are good. He’s setting up blocks, and he’s a good team player. He’s got an abundance of ability and a great attitude. He’s fitting in really well with the team. I’m extremely glad that he’s here. Sims could be our best inside (slot) receiver right now.”
Senior defensive lineman Shaq Rowell:
“If you want to be a good defense, you’ve got to have a nasty mindset. We have to be nasty or we’re going to get the same results as last year.”
Junior Kevin White on the talent at the wide receiver position:
“Let them keep sleeping on us. We just want to come out and surprise them. Keep working hard. We don’t really care what they think, what they say. We know what we’ve got, so we’re just ready to go. I think we’ve got it all, just got to connect the pieces to the puzzle. We’re going to shock a lot of people.”