The Times West Virginian

March 2, 2014

Holgorsen vows team will ‘work harder’ as spring practice opens

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It doesn’t feel like it and the calendar may disagree, but today is the first day of spring … practice, that is, for the West Virginia University football team.

It is a team trying to bounce back from a disastrous 4-8 season a year, and it is being born with high hopes for a big-time bounce-back season.

“Everybody wants to win, and nobody wants to win more than me,” coach Dana Holgorsen said during his pre-spring media luncheon. “This coaching staff, this team and Mountaineer Nation, I understand how much everybody wants to win. 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. There were some pretty exciting games out there on Mountaineer Field last season that we came up a couple points short.

“We are working as hard as we can possibly work. I think the product is going to be improved and be something you can be proud of.”

Spring, though, is a time for questions, and the Mountaineers enter the spring with a number of questions that must be answered.

 Certain situations are solid heading into the spring … the running backs and receivers seem to be strengths, along with the interior offensive line which Holgorsen calls “one of the better guard combinations in the country,” while the linebacking corps is deep and experienced and the secondary promising.

But there also are areas of concern, and that’s where the concentration will be centered this spring.

So here, as spring begins, we offer the biggest questions and how they will be approached. It begins at quarterback:

• Can Skyler Howard, a junior college sensation in Riverside, Calif., handle the job as a Division I starter?

He comes with rave reviews but with one major question, that being his height. He stands 5-11 or 6-foot, depending upon whether he can get away with standing on his toes when being measured, but Holgorsen does not believe his height will hold him back.

Considering that returning starter Clint Trickett’s surgically repaired shoulder will keep him out of drills and high school recruit William Crest will not partake of spring practice, the spotlight will shine clearly on Howard.

Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is the one who brought him in.

“I put the plan in front of Dana of what I thought we needed to do, and he agreed,” Dawson said. “So I went out and tried to find the best midterm guy who can bring competition to that (quarterback) room that I could find. The biggest thing, throughout his background, is he’s got a good story. He’s had to fight, and he’s had to fight hard. He’s been an undersized quarterback his whole life.”

And he’s succeeded to date, first a high school prospect in Texas, then at junior college. Now, with undersized QBs standing tall through Phillip Rivers as a Super Bowl champion and Johnny Manziel as a Heisman Trophy winner, WVU believes he can do the job.

“He can work out well,” Holgorsen said. “He asks a lot of questions in the meeting room. He comes in and meets with Shannon all the time. Nothing is more important to him than being a quarterback, which I view as being very important.

“I haven’t seen him in a football setting yet. The workout setting is good though. The players seem to gravitate toward him, and he works out better than most of our skill guys. He is a football guy that asks a lot of questions, and football is important to him.”

With Howard will be Paul Millard, who has started and is solid in the offense, and they have moved Logan Moore, formerly of Fairmont State, back to quarterback to give them another arm in the spring and to give him a chance to show what he does best, which is quarterback a team.

“We’re probably not going to name a starter until later on. This spring is going to be a huge advantage for those guys who are practicing, obviously,” Dawson said.

• Who will play offensive tackle?

A year ago, Pat Eger, Nick Kindler and Curtis Feigt started at offensive tackle, but all have graduated and there really isn’t much experience there and Holgorsen knows it.

“Probably the biggest question on our offense, besides quarterback, is who our tackles will be. We lost two seniors last year,” Holgorsen said.

Offensive line coach Ron Crook is going to have to do some shuffling and experimenting.

“Marquise Lucas will be moved to tackle to see if he can handle anything on the edge,” Holgorsen said, referring to a junior with big potential. “Adam Pankey, Marcell Lazard, Sylvester Townes, a junior college kid coming, are all big bodies that are long, tall and have good wing spans.

“We need to see which guys develop and which ones don’t.”

Much of the spring attention will go right there, but there is another possibility in an experienced player whom they’ve been hoping would evolve into a starter due to the fact that he is 6-foot-9 and 319 pounds.

“Mike Calicchio is a fifth-year guy that is enormous. We will see if he can potentially get himself to where he can help us as well,” Holgorsen said.

• Every spring some player comes out of nowhere to win the attention of the coaches and his teammates, maybe even win a chance to win a starting position in the fall. Who are some players you probably haven’t heard of who will get a chance to become big contributors this season?

Let’s first look at the offense, and we have already mentioned Logan Moore finally getting his chance at quarterback.

“We’ve gone through a spring with two arms before, and it isn’t fun. Logan is working really hard, he is studying what is going on, and feels like he will have a chance to compete,” Holgorsen said.

With the receivers, running backs and interior line as solid as it is, there isn’t much room for people stepping forward. However, Cody Clay, who was kind of a tight end/H-back who proved to be a valuable asset a year ago, is being listed as a wide receiver, and that leaves the tight end/H-back spot open. Holgorsen sees a couple of other players who could move forward this spring.

“Garrett Hope and Ellijah Wellman are guys who are able to bring some nastiness and toughness, so we are going to line them up and let them play ball,” he said

Hope is a 250-pound junior out of Texas, while Wellman is 235-pound redshirt freshman out Huntington.

With depth needed at linebacker on defense, there’s a number of players who are going to be given a long, hard look.

“Edward Muldrow is a long-armed guy and has attacked this offseason really well,” Holgorsen said. “Al-Rasheed Benton is a big guy who can fit in well. You have young guys like Hodari Christian and (Isaac) McDonald who provide a bunch of depth.

“We are three- to four-deep at those spots, so it’ll be interesting to see what we can do with a bunch of guys that have experience. We look forward to getting those guys out there and playing.”

And then there’s a 288-pound defensive lineman out of Dayton, Ohio, whom they are anxious to see perform this spring.

“Darrien Howard is finally getting an offseason. He’s finally getting an offseason because he didn’t show up here until mid-August. Getting him an offseason is important,” said Holgorsen.

• Something new has been added this spring, taking practice around the state to help bring the team to the fans, coming at a time when they seemed to be feeling somewhat separated from the program and disappointed in consecutive 7-6 and 4-8 seasons.

How did this come about and how will it work?

“I just wanted to do it,” Holgorsen said. “I came up with the idea and no one was telling me to do it. I talked to Alex (Hammond) and there were some compliance issues that we had to work with.

“Hopefully the weather cooperates. It is weather depending. I do not think anyone wants to sit in five degree weather with rain, sleet and snow. Just like the spring game is, we just wanted to open these up and let everyone watch and show people across the state that we will be a product out there that they can be proud of.”

What are the plans for showing off this year’s team?

“We’ve set four Saturday practices,” Holgorsen said. “On Saturday, March 22, we’ll be going to Wheeling to hold a practice. On Saturday, March 29, we’ll have a practice in Morgantown, and on Saturday, April 5, we’ll practice down in Charleston.

“Then, on Saturday, April 12, we will have the spring game. All four of those practices will be open to the public. We want all of Mountaineer Nation to be able to come and watch the Mountaineers to see what we’re putting out there and see what the product is. I think everyone is going to be pleasantly surprised with what the product is going to be.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.