By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
In a way, Dana Holgorsen feels a lot like the thousands of West Virginia University freshmen who will be attending their first Mountaineer football game today.
The WVU coach doesn’t know what to expect.
When kickoff against William & Mary of the Colonial Athletic Association comes at noon and a near-sellout crowd greets it with a roar welcoming in Holgorsen’s third season as head coach since replacing Bill Stewart, he knows it takes him off on a journey into the unknown.
He comes off a season in which he could do no better than 7-6 despite three record-shattering stars who would go in the first three rounds of the NFL draft on offense and faces a team that struggled to finish 2-9, yet there will be butterflies of anticipation.
What does his 2013 edition of the Mountaineers do well?
“No clue,” he answered.
He wasn’t lying. Heck, he wasn’t sure who his quarterback would be for the first play.
He’d narrowed a field of three fighting to replace Geno Smith down to two – Florida State transfer Clint Trickett and Paul Millard – but could get it down no further.
“Who’s going to start? I don’t know,” he said during the week. “Paul or Clint will start. They will both play. Potentially all three of them will play. At this point, they’ve done nothing to warrant not playing quarterback here.”
And nothing to win the job, either.
“It’s going to take some game reps and putting these guys in situations where they have to respond to really know what we’re working with,” Holgorsen said. “The guy that we’re going to give the most reps to is going to take care of the ball and make good decisions about handoffs, interceptions and all of that.”
It’s hardly a coach’s dream, but it’s reality.
“We don’t live in a perfect world. Would I rather have a three-year starter returning at quarterback? Yeah. What we’re dealing with right now is the same as what 30-50 other schools are dealing with. It’s college football and graduations (happen). That opens the door for the next star to be born. You lose a couple tremendous guys, but that opens up the door for some other guys to get some snaps in and make some tremendous plays, too.”
But there are so many other unknowns.
Can running back Charles Sims, the senior transfer from the University of Houston, live up to his billing?
Will Ivan McCartney, back after having quit the team a year ago, have matured into the player WVU thought it was getting when it brought him in from the high school that produced Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey?
Could Tyler Orlosky fill the bill at center, a new position for him in his first collegiate game?
Has new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson solved the defensive problems that took away any chance WVU had for a big season last year?
And the freshmen … oh, so many freshmen.
“There aren’t as many freshmen on the depth chart as there were last year,” Holgorsen said. “If you remember, we played eight or 10 freshmen defensively last year. Everyone wants to know why we were bad defensively last year — that’s probably one pretty good sign. Secondly, we were in the Big 12, which had five of the top eight offenses in the country. That makes it challenging. We didn’t lose a ton of personnel defensively to warrant concern. We did offensively.”
Indeed, the offense shows that Pat Eger, the backup tackle, has more starts any other offensive player, and only two of what started out as 20 wide receivers has started any games.
“We have a lot of inexperienced guys. Whether they’re guys that were or weren’t in the program, there aren’t a ton of guys who have taken college snaps,” Holgorsen said. “So it can be a concern to some, and it can be exciting to others. I take in the exciting part. I can’t wait to see those guys and see what they’ve got.”
Excited, but unsure. This is a game, yes, but also a test.
“(I want to) see which guys respond well to the atmosphere of 65,000 people in the stands and being on national television,” Holgorsen said. “Some guys will elevate their game, and some guys will get wide-eyed and not do what we want them to do. We have to identify that, and there’s only one way you can identify that.”
There are a lot of players who come under this heading, players like freshman running back Wendell Smallwood and wide receivers like Daikiel Shorts, players with qualities but without the experience on the big stage of college football.
Holgorsen will try to keep it basic and simple as he breaks in a new quarterback and a group of inexperienced players.
“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel here. Everyone knows what we do defensively and offensively,” he said. “You can turn the tape on from last year and figure out what we do differently.
“Is (defensive coordinator) Keith (Patterson) going to add some different wrinkles to it? Yes. Are we going to have some different wrinkles offensively based on who our personnel is? I would assume that will be the case.
“There’s probably a pretty good chance of change, and when you see what the product is you’ll be able to notice the distinct differences. As a fan in the stands, I doubt you’ll notice very much.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.