By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Call this week’s Big 12 meeting between West Virginia University and Kansas “The Junior College Bowl.”
Kickoff for the Lawrence, Kansas, showdown is noon Saturday with the game being shown on Root Sports.
WVU brings a 4-6 record, 2-5 in the Big 12, into the game and needs to beat not only Kansas (2-7, 0-6) but also Iowa State in the regular-season finale on Nov. 30 in Milan Puskar Stadium to become bowl eligible.
“The only team that probably attacked junior colleges more than we did was probably Kansas,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. “As far as we’re concerned, we did it for a reason, and it worked out.”
Holgorsen found himself terribly short on players ready to move into the lineup coming into the season and opted to go the JC route to build his numbers of game-ready players rather than commit to a long-term building program.
He brought in nine junior college recruits, about half as many as Charlie Weis recruited at Kansas.
While WVU’s record is not anywhere near what has become the norm over the years, one can’t imagine what the season might have been like had the school not approached junior colleges.
Consider just the last game, a near upset of Texas.
Junior college transfer running back Dreamius Smith scored a touchdown on an 8-yard run while carrying seven
times for 24 yards; wide receiver Mario Alford caught a 72-yard TD pass among four he caught for 92 yards while also taking a reverse 20 yards during overtime; and wide receiver Kevin White was the leading receiver with five catches for 89 yards.
All three players took time to catch on, the jump from junior college to Division I football being a tricky one, the attitude being as different as the game.
“When you get to Division I there is no ‘me’ or ‘I.’ It’s going to be a team thing. You have to stay together and do what you can,” Smith said. “It wasn’t that hard, though. In JUCO you play against guys who were recruited Division I but couldn’t qualify or you play with guys who have potential to play D-1 but just couldn’t. The game moves fast, but, of course, it moves faster here.”
Alford didn’t come along as quickly as did Smith, who played last year at Butler College in Kansas after failing to qualify with the Jayhawks. Alford had come out of Georgia Military College and, while Smith arrived in January, he did not make it to campus until summer.
“The issue is like when you get guys like Dontrill (Hyman), Brandon (Golson) and Mario (Alford), a lot of those guys didn’t join us until August. You can throw regular transfers like Charles Sims and Clint (Trickett) in there,” Holgorsen said, referring to two players who transferred from four-year colleges and were fully experienced.
“It’s a big thing to get guys like Kevin White and Dreamius Smith already playing at a high level for us in January; you can coach them and get them ahead. But you still need those game reps to get them playing at a high level. There’s another seven or eight guys this year that didn’t come up until August. It’s tough, but we did it for a reason,” Holgorsen continued.
The dividends are beginning to pay and should carry over into next season for all except Sims, who is in his final season eligibility.
The play Alford made was an example of what Holgorsen meant. It was a simple slant off the line of scrimmage, QB Paul Millard hitting him perfectly in stride and him taking it the rest of the way by a widening margin.
“That made me smile, maybe for the first time all year, when he took a routine play and made a big play out of it,” said Holgorsen, who actually was seen hugging assistants on the sidelines. “He’s getting comfortable out there.”
It was only recently that Holgorsen moved Alford into the slot from the outside.
“I’m kicking myself in the tail for not doing it earlier,” Holgorsen said. “When we recruited him we thought that he was like a Tavon Austin kind of guy. He played a lot of running back, and they moved him around.
“But looking back at it, Tavon was a junior when I got here, and he was there in the spring. I’m not comparing him to Tavon, which would be ridiculous. But we had Tavon all spring and his junior year wasn’t that great. He only had, I think, two receiving touchdowns until the Orange Bowl.
“He got more comfortable and better with the system. It’s harder to play inside than outside. We finally got smart and moved (Alford) outside. He got real comfortable and has been getting better every week. What he did on Saturday was good to see, but he’s been heading in that direction ever since we moved him there.”
Along with Smith, Alford and White, a dynamic deep threat, there is defensive end Hyman and linebacker Golson along with punter Nick O’Toole who have been big contributors.
Of course, dealing with JC players is often a gamble for they normally have some kind of shortcoming that kept them from qualifying immediately, and Holgorsen had a couple of misses with linebacker d’Vante Henry, who wasn’t with the team at the start of camp because of a personal issue and was later dismissed from the team following an arrest in September for second-degree sexual assault, and receiver Ronald Carswell, who averaged a team-high 20.6 yards on 20 receptions in eight games, is suspended indefinitely for violating team rules before the TCU win.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.