By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
One of the most crucial recruiting seasons in many years comes to a conclusion today for West Virginia University’s football team with the Mountaineers expected to welcome at least 24 recruits, hoping to fill huge gaps following a disappointing season.
Every year in college football teams face rebuilding situations, but few teams in recent memory have lost the likes of quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, who leaves with a year’s eligibility remaining.
These are three record-shattering performers who powered an offense that allowed the Mountaineers to record a winning season along with a bowl invitation in a year when it fielded the worst defense in school history.
In truth, WVU lost its top four receivers with Austin, Bailey, senior J.D. Woods and junior Ivan McCartney, who left the team in mid-season.
Now, WVU must fill in big holes on the offense that includes the heart and soul of the offensive line in center Joey Madsen and guard Jeff Braun, along with running back Shawne Alston.
At the same time, the special team specialists must also be rebuilt with placekicker/punter Tyler Bitancurt and punter/kickoff man Corey Smith leaving, to say nothing of return men Austin and Bailey.
Add the holes there are on defense that not only include replacing many of last year’s players who did not perform well, but also cornerback Pat Miller and safety Terence Garvin.
The Mountaineers received a late commitment at Monday night’s basketball game against Texas when junior college punter Nick O’Toole was offered a scholarship.
They already have five junior college players on their list, three of them enrolled in school and ready for spring practice, players they hope will offer immediate help.
Four are offensive players, perhaps the most important being wide receivers Ronald Carswell (Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss.) and Kevin White (Lackawanna Community College in Scranton). They were seen as potential replacements for Austin and Bailey.
Carswell originally signed with Alabama and played there a year before being suspended before the bowl. At Itawamba, in his only year there, he finished the season with 44 receptions for 429 yards and one touchdown.
White, out of Lackawanna, which sent former defensive back Shawn Hackett to the Mountaineers, made 36 receptions, totaling 535 yards and six touchdowns last year while averaging 14.9 yards per reception.
From Butler Junior College in El Dorando, Kansas, comes running back Dreamius Smith to replace Shawne Alston. He helped the team to a combined 22-2 record over two seasons, including the 2011 NJCAA national championship, while falling in the championship game in 2012.
Last year he finished with 984 yards on 120 carries and 17 touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry and adding 16 receptions for 179 yards and two touchdowns.
Looking to replace Madsen, the Mountaineers have added Stone Underwood from Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez, Miss., and outside linebacker D’Vante Henry of Arizona Western Community College is a potential replacement for Josh Francis, who finished second on the team in sacks last year.
Defensively, the key signing may prove to be 265-pound pass rushing end Dontrill Hyman out of Mississippi’s Hind Community College, WVU in desperate need of pass rushing help having lost its top three in sacks from last year, a team that did not apply much pressure.
East Carolina put on a push for Hyman, but its former defensive coordinator, Brian Mitchell, is now on WVU coach Dana Holgorsen’s staff.
Perhaps most likely to replace Alston is a high school four-star recruit, Shelton Gibson, out of Cleveland Heights (Ohio) High, who weighs only 173 pounds but has the same type of shiftiness that Austin displayed during his time at WVU.
“His change of direction is eye-opening and it has fooled many opposing defenders in high school,” wrote Bleacher Report of him.
WVU is also expecting letters from two four-star inside linebackers in 260-pound Darrien Howard of Dayton (Ohio) Chaminade-Julienne and Al-Rasheed Benton out of Newark, N.J., Malcom X. Shabazz High.
Howard was ranked ninth by ESPN among its inside linebackers.
WVU has three other four-star prospects lined up in safety Malik Greaves out of Jacksonville, Fla., Sandalwood High, outside linebacker Hodari Christian from McKeesport (Pa.) High and offensive tackle Marcell Lazard out of Bloomfield (N.J.) High.
In all, WVU expects 24 or more commitments.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.