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Big 12 preview: West Virginia

The SportsXchange

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Any similarity between West Virginia's football team this year and last is purely coincidental.

Coach Dana Holgorsen has had to do a complete remake not only on a defense that was the worst in school history last season, promoting Keith Patterson to coordinator and bringing in new coaches to handle the cornerbacks and safeties, but he has had to replace his three key offensive players in quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, along with most of the offensive line.

The result will be a different look on both sides of the ball, Patterson installing a multiple 3-4 defense that will come be versatile both in its looks and blitzes while the offenses strength moves from the passing game to the running game.

It isn't that Holgorsen will throw less necessarily, it's just he is going to have make the offense fit the personnel and his experience is in the running backs.

Perhaps the key player is Charles Sims, who transferred from Houston where he led Cougars with 851 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns and caught 37 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns despite being plagued with injury.

He is the perfect player for Holgorsen's system and actually had his most productive season as a freshman at Houston when Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator. Sims is the Big 12's preseason Newcomer of the Year after last year making second team all-Conference USA while rushing for 812 yards on just 110 carries and catching 51 passes for 575 yards.

"I am familiar with the offense already," he noted. "I have basically been running this offense since my freshman year; it is just different terminology you have to learn."

He is joined at running back by Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, each of whom has led WVU in rushing the past two seasons.

The biggest problem in putting things together has been that there is no clear-cut starter at quarterback.

The candidates include Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, who does have 17 games of experience, last year's backup Paul Millard and redshirt freshman Ford Childress.

At one point Holgorsen said he would announce a starter last Saturday. As of Sunday, there was no announcement and media was not allowed to watch Saturday's workout..

On defense, the Mountaineers are looking for safety Karl Joseph to step up. A year ago, as a true freshman, Joseph led the Mountaineers in tackles with 76 tackles and ranked 14th in the nation in solo tackles.

Known for his hard-hitting, this Floridian has put on some weight in the off-season and is determined to show that he can lead the WVU defense out of the depths in which it found itself last season.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: September may be one of the easiest/toughest months in West Virginia's schedule in recent memory. Yes, the Mountaineers play two of their first three games down in class, facing William & Mary at home in the opener (technically on Aug. 31) and then playing Georgia State at home. But, before anyone goes celebrating, the season's most crucial game will played between those games on Sept. 7 for the Big 12 opener in of all places Norman, Okla., against the Sooners. Talk about finding out what you have! On Sept. 21 following Georgia State, the Mountaineers go to M&T Stadium in Baltimore to face the Maryland Terrapins in the only regional rivalry game left on their schedule. That game presents some psychological problems, however, as it is followed on Sept. 28 by what probably is the season's biggest home game against Oklahoma State, the preseason favorite in the Big 12.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: The No. 1 goal of the pre-season has been to settle on a quarterback to replace Geno Smith. The job was wide open coming into camp among Trickett, who transferred in following spring from Florida State, where he played in 17 games; Millard, last year's backup, and Childress, a redshirt freshman. While Holgorsen maintained the job was wide open, Trickett's experience was thought to be giving him the edge. Obviously, with Tavon Auston and Stedman Bailey gone, each having caught more than 100 passes for more than 1,000 yards, replacements had to step up and Holgorsen gathered a group of 17 receivers, including Ivan McCartney, a one-time starter who left the team in mid-season last year and has returned, and Jordan Thompson, a diminutive slot who was dominant in the spring game. Defensively new coordinator Keith Patterson and a couple of new secondary coaches must fill a number of linebacking holes and rebuild with a new philosophy that will feature a multiple 3-4 base that also can go 4-3 and 3-3-5. Last year's defense was the worst in WVU history and must improve its ability against the passing game.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Obviously, the defense leads the way as while the coordinator was changed, there really isn't much turnover from a group that allowed 38.1 points a game and allowed 38 or more points in 9 of 13 games. WVU needs desperately to improve its pass rush and coverage. The offensive line is also questionable as the entire three inside positions are turning over and there is not much proven in the replacement. Finally, when you lost Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey and have no standouts in line to take over, there is concern, although Holgorsen's offense over the year is a proven commodity and probably will be able to weather the turnover.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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