By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia opens coach Dana Holgorsen’s third season as coach on Thursday of this week in an atmosphere of almost starting over.
A year ago much was set as the Mountaineers went into camp, coming off 10-3 season that included an Orange Bowl victory and a star-studded offense.
“Probably the biggest difference going into this year as opposed to last year is everything that we dealt with last year is pretty much the opposite this year,” Holgorsen said during Big 12 Media Day. “Had a lot of good things coming off a big bowl game and had some star power on offense and all the experience on offense and very inexperienced on defense. It’s the exact opposite going into this year.”
Indeed it is.
There are questions everywhere, but here are the top five things that must come out of camp if this is to be an improved season.
1. Holgorsen has three quarterback candidates – Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, Geno Smith’s backup Paul Millard and redshirt freshman Travis Ford. He must decide upon one and groom him so he can run his offense.
“We’ve got Clint Trickett coming in, who has probably as much experience in the college game as anybody in the Big 12, just because he’s been a starter in some big games. He’s a very smart kid, graduated at Florida State in three years, backed up two first-round draft picks at Florida State in three years.
“He’s been around it his whole life (as son of former WVU offensive line coach Rick Trickett) and is a good player. And didn’t tell him that he was going to start either. He’s got to come in and beat an experienced Paul Millard out, who has taken more reps than anybody on our campus. He’s taken 50 percent of the reps for a long, long time in practice. So he knows the offense better than anybody.
“And then you’ve got Ford Childress, who’s going to continue to get better and better. He may have more potential than any of the other guys. He’s just young, with four years remaining.”
2. Holgorsen and new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have to work a number of junior college players into a defense that was the worst in WVU history last year, cutting opponents’ production in half if WVU is to have a decent season.
The most important area of the defense is in the pass rush, and two JUCO players were brought in directly to address that in Brandon Golson and d’Vante Henry. At the same time a fire must be lit under senior defensive end Will Clarke for pass rush and leadership.
“I’d like to become more of an impact player in the offensive backfield. I want to be more of a force,” Clarke said. “I want quarterbacks to hate me for the 60 minutes.”
3. An offensive line must be patched together after losing center Joey Madsen and guards Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins.
A new offensive line coach Ron Crook has joined the staff from Stanford with some different blocking thoughts and with the idea of being more aggressive as WVU will have to run the ball much more this season with the strength of the offense lying in its running backs.
“I do feel good about where we’re at running back-wise,” Holgorsen said. “When you look at Dreamius Smith, one of the more sought-after running backs in the JUCO ranks last year, was with us in spring practice. We have transfer Charles Sims in from Houston. Dustin Garrison was a full-time starter as a true freshman, and Andrew Buie was a guy that had 200 yards against Texas last year. So we’ve got capable guys, as deep there as we’ve ever been, that’s for certain.”
But Crook has to develop a line that gives them some running room.
“It’s probably a little bit more important up front, if you want to establish the run game, you’d better have an O-line that’s able to get that done, and I think we’ve got some quality guys up front,” Holgorsen said. “Quinton Spain is a four-year starter, and he’s massive. If we can get other kids to do what he’s able to do, I think our run game will be just fine.”
4. Holgorsen believes his offense has to have a receiver who catches 100 passes. He lost two who did so from last year’s team and has very little returning in the way of experience.
“I haven’t lost any sleep over Tavon (Austin) and Stedman (Bailey) moving to the NFL,” Holgorsen said. “We don’t hold anybody back. That’s not the first time we’ve lost receivers to the NFL and be able to line up next year and execute our offense.
“It gets me excited of being able to get out there and face the challenge of being able to take 10 strong guys and coach them and be able to develop them.”
Jordan Thompson, the diminutive one who dominated the spring, may prove himself to be the key, but Ivan McCartney returns after quitting the team and has huge potential, while freshman Shelton Gibson, redshirt sophomore Dante Campbell and sophomore K.J. Myers all have the potential to be a force in the offense.
Junior college transfer Kevin White comes with the reputation that he might be best of all.
5. Perhaps the nicest problems are trying to figure out how to work versatile newcomer Charles Sims, a dangerous runner and receiver who transferred from Houston and has been named Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the year, and tight/fullback Cody Clay into the picture.
Sims makes WVU a different team with his ability to play the slot or running back, and Clay does the same, although he’s more a bruising player than Sims, who is a skill player.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.