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March 27, 2011

WVU enters spring with few answers

MORGANTOWN — Seldom has West Virginia University’s spring football practice had the feeling of such urgency as the one which begins at Milan Puskar Stadium on Wednesday morning.

If the tea leafs have been read correctly, it is the on-field beginning of an attempt by the Mountaineers to muscle in among college football’s elite, to establish itself as a program on the level if not with the Ohio States and Alabamas of the world, then with the nouveaux riche of the game like Boise State and TCU.

Lingering near the middle or bottom of the Top 25 is no longer the neighborhood Athletic Director Oliver Luck has in mind. Nine-victory seasons are unacceptable, as is sharing the Big East championship, something the Mountaineers have become boringly good at in recent years.

“I didn’t believe that we had an opportunity to win a national championship with the current direction of the program,” Luck said as he slashed Coach Bill Stewart’s contract to one year, keeping him on in a mainly titular position of head coach while Dana Holgorsen comes in from Oklahoma State and other points south and west to run the offense, then, after a year, run the entire show.

And now it begins.

All eyes will be on Holgorsen and that offense of his that is ordained to renew excitement in WVU football, to place fannies in what was becoming empty seats, to build a new suite section, to lead the Mountaineers back into a BCS bowl and all the gravy that comes with it.

He certainly finds a well-stocked cupboard with a budding star at quarterback to run his up-tempo, high-scoring offense, with a stable of outstanding receivers led by game-breaking Tavon Austin, both a receiver and runner, and deep threat Bradley Starks.

True, they all were recruited for a different system, but Holgorsen has told us that his system is versatile enough to adapt to their skills, be it spreading the defense out and throwing the ball or running it.

“Offensively, we have a pretty good idea of where we are going to place people, but that is going to change,” Holgorsen promised, viewing the spring as a starting point. “The depth chart right now is a good place to start. Where we are at with the offense is pretty much the same thing as far as getting to know the kids right now. From an Xs and Os standpoint, we are trying to get everyone on the same page.

“We don’t put a number on yards or being ranked in certain areas — all of that will take care of itself. Basically, we are trying to install the mentality and philosophy of what we want to do.”

Holgorsen has issued warnings already that early on the offense will not look good, even though he says it is simple enough to install in three days. So judgment will be withheld by all as it goes through the spring, there being something to take out of this spring more important than an offense firing on all cylinders.

Stewart put it best in his pre-spring media meeting.

“This spring, our No. 1 objective is chemistry,” Stewart said. “I have a great staff, and I am very blessed with tremendous players, coaches and administration. Our chemistry has to be one of high value. Every football team has to have great chemistry. If you don’t have that, then nothing you do is going to matter.”

This is chemistry on all levels, for the coaching staff itself would seem to be a powder keg that could ignite if faced with adversity, a new offensive staff and an old defensive staff, a lame-duck head coach and his replacement working under him.

Chemistry, indeed.

Then there is the kind of pressure the players will be under, trying to learn a new offense, trying learn a new offensive staff, trying to win jobs. They are in need of more than chemistry.

“We need to have leadership,” said Stewart. “We are blessed with tremendous leadership. Leadership is important in any institution, specifically here. We have great football coaches. You know that from our defensive coaches, and you will learn that as you meet our new offensive guys.

There is so much to do and so little time to do it, just 15 practices before they are turned loose for the summer.

The key items are, of course, getting Smith comfortable and secure in the system he will run as he has no backup with college experience. Developing a backup may be as important as Smith’s development itself, considering that has had spent the past two offseasons healing stress fractures in his feet.

Beyond that improving an offensive line that was, quite honestly, inadequate over the past two seasons, is a challenge but Holgorsen and his line coach Bill Bedenbaugh do not seem to think it is anything they cannot overcome.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new offense could be the development as a senior of Brad Starks, a converted quarterback who became a deep threat last year but was not used nearly enough.

On the defensive side the staff remained intact under Jeff Casteel, who just may be the best coordinator in football, with all due apologies to Holgorsen. But while the staff was intact, the defense wasn’t.

It had developed over the years into one of the nation’s best last season but seven of those starters are gone and so Casteel is holding spring auditions.

“This is going to be a big spring for us defensively,” Casteel said. “Losing the caliber kids that we lost this year is big. When you look at who we lost and where at, it is spread throughout the defense. Our challenge is trying to plug guys into those spots. We are excited to get a chance to get the guys on the field to see what they can do.”

Gone is Chris Neild at nose guard, J.T. Thomas at linebacker, Robert Sands at safety and Brandon Hogan at cornerback.

“We still have to find some ways to see what our kids do best and put them in a position where we can play to their strengths,” Casteel said. “We had great leadership last year. They were very competitive, and as the year went on they got more and more confidence. That is what we need to stress this spring.”

Helping ease the transition is the pass-rushing sensation Bruce Irvin at defensive end. He led the Big East with 14 sacks last year and this year the plan is to make him more of a full-time performer rather than just on third down.

Keith Tandy moves across the field to Hogan’s spot, but filling in for Neild and Sands, who were very special talents, will be difficult. Josh Taylor gets the early nod at nose guard while Terence Garvin moves up to play Sands’ role.

With all that going on it would be nice to know the kicking game was in good ha … feet, but it is in flux.

The punting job is expected to fall to Corey Smith, who could wind up doing all three jobs — kickoff, place-kicking and punting as Tyler Bitancurt, last year’s place-kicker, had a difficult season, opening that position to competition.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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