West Virginia is heading west this season, and the Mountaineers are going to discover better football.
How much better will an intriguing storyline. WVU is leaving the Big East for the Big 12. With 15 starters back from a 10-win team, WVU would've been prohibitive favorites in the Big East. Expectations in the Big 12 are that the Mountaineers finish somewhere between second and fifth.
Second-year coach Dana Holgorsen is well-versed in Big 12 football, having served as Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator before heading to West Virginia; he also worked under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Offensively, the Mountaineers will fit right in. The Big 12 is a free-wheeling offensive league and that's fine with WVU, which utilizes a pass-happy version of the spread and should have one of the most potent attacks in the nation.
The storyline of change definitely carries over to the defense, which is switching its 3-3-5 scheme for a more conventional 3-4 set. New co-coordinators Joe DeForest, who arrives from Oklahoma State, and Keith Patterson, who was at Pittsburgh last season, have rebuilding to do. In addition, a defense that usually was among the best in the Big East will get far more tests in the Big 12.
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-2 in Big East (tied for 1st in league)
Coach: Dana Holgorsen (10-3, 2nd season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (8) – WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, G Jeff Braun, T Pat Eger, TB Dustin Garrison, C Joe Madsen, WR Ivan McCartney, QB Geno Smith. Defense (8) – T/E Will Clarke, S Darwin Cook, SS Terence Garvin (moving to OLB), CB Pat Miller, LB Doug Rigg, LB Jewone Snow, NT Jorge Wright. Special teams (2) – K Tyler Bitancurt, P Corey Smith.
Fast fact: WVU has won either nine, 10 or 11 games in each of the past seven seasons, and has averaged 10 victories a season in that span.
All of the key skill-position components are back, and QB Geno Smith and WRs Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey should contend for all-league honors in their new conference.
Smith passed for a school-record 4,385 yards last season, with 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He adapted quickly to Holgorsen's offense and had eight 300-yard games; in addition, he threw for at least 400 yards four times, with a season-high 463 against LSU. He threw just two interceptions in the final six games.
Smith was named the league's preseason first-team quarterback, ahead of Oklahoma's Landry Jones.
Austin seemingly was born to play the slot in a spread offense. He had a school-record 101 receptions for 1,186 yards and eight TDs; he had 73 receptions combined in his first two seasons at WVU. He also is valuable as a runner and as a return man. Austin led the nation in all-purpose yards per game at 198.0; he averaged 14.96 yards every time he touched the ball (172 times) and scored 11 TDs. Austin also had 19 plays that covered at least 30 yards.
Bailey, who played with Smith in high school at Miramar (Fla.) High, is a big-play guy who caught 72 passes for 1,279 yards and 12 TDs. He had eight receptions covering at least 40 yards and three covering at least 60 yards. He also had seven 100-yard games. Ivan McCartney, also a former teammate at Miramar High, is a solid No. 3 receiver (49 receptions last season). WVU needs two or three other receivers to fill complementary roles.
Look for WVU to again use a committee approach at running back. Dustin Garrison ran for 742 yards as a true freshman last season and also is a good receiver. Shawne Alston, a 235-pounder, is the short-yardage back, and there's also Andrew Buie, who has good speed. Garrison blew out his ACL late last season, and his health is worth watching. He is the best fit for this offense among the backs.
The line had some issues with the change in blocking schemes last season, and that group will have two new starters this fall. Well, sort of. G Josh Jenkins, who started in 2009 and '10, missed last season with an injury, but is healthy and will fill the hole at guard. He, G Jeff Braun and C Joe Madsen give the Mountaineers one of the best interior groups in the league. Returning starter Pat Eger likely will be joined at tackle by sophomore Quinton Spain, who made one start last season. Spain backed up Eger at right tackle last fall, but now will play left tackle. Depth looks fine on the line.
The move from the 3-3-5 ends a successful era for WVU. Jeff Casteel oversaw some stout defenses using that rare scheme, but he has moved on to Arizona and the new defensive staff has switched to the 3-4. The scheme and conference changes mean this is a unit that bears watching.
WVU was 61st nationally in scoring defense last season (26.8 ppg), and that was playing a schedule heavy with Big East opponents. Eight Big 12 teams averaged at least 28 points per game and four averaged at least 39; just three Big East teams averaged at least 28 points – and one was WVU.
NT Jorge Wright and Will Clarke (who played tackle and end last season) are returning starters up front. There is no proven pass rusher on the roster, and the fight for the starting jobs on either side of Wright should be a fierce one in fall camp.
The biggest change at linebacker, obviously, is that WVU now needs more. To that end, Terence Garvin was moved from a starting safety spot to outside linebacker. Garvin should be a playmaker at his new position and vie for all-league honors. Doug Rigg and Jewone Snow are returning starters at linebacker, and they combined for 72 stops last season. Other linebackers who will be strongly vying for time include senior Josh Francis, sophomore Jared Barber and redshirt freshman Isaiah Bruce.
SS Darwin Cook should be the leader in the secondary; he had 85 tackles and two interceptions last season. CB Pat Miller is the other returning starter. Miller is physical in run support and made 66 tackles last season; he also had two picks and three pass breakups. Junior Brodrick Jenkins, who played especially well down the stretch, should be the other starting corner; he had two interceptions and eight breakups last season. The new free safety is expected to be junior Travis Bell, a former all-state player at powerhouse Belle Glade (Fla.) Glades Central who has good physical tools. Depth looks good, too, which will be important because the secondary will be tested far more often in the Big 12 than it was in the Big East.
K Tyler Bitancurt returns after going 16-of-22 last season; one issue with Bitancurt is that he was just 5-of-9 between 30 and 39 yards.
WVU used two punters last season, and both return. Corey Smith, who began his career at Alabama, averaged 39.7 yards and is expected to win the job. Michael Molinari averaged 37.2 yards and also is the holder on field goals and extra points.
Austin is one of the best return men in the nation, a threat to score anytime he gets the ball on a punt or kickoff.
The coverage teams were bad last season, especially the kickoff unit. WVU allowed two kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns.
Three of the first four games are at home (the one that isn't is in Landover, Md.), as are five of the first eight.
WVU should be 4-0 when it plays its first true road game, against Texas on Oct. 6. The Mountaineers also visit Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in league play. The toughest conference games in Morgantown will be against Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma.
Offensively, WVU already looked like a Big 12 team; the defense is the big question. Going against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in back-to-back weeks, for instance, isn't like going against Rutgers and Louisville.
Holgorsen's Big 12 background will help. The biggest plus, though, is that offense, which is equipped to win shootouts. And it's likely that WVU is going to be in two or three – or four or five – of those this season.
Can WVU win the Big 12 in its inaugural season? Yes. But it also could finish fifth or sixth. What seems most likely is a second- or third-place finish, and the trip to Austin on Oct. 6 to play the Longhorns might end up being the season's tipping point, good or bad.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 38th nationally
The buzz: Holgorsen is familiar with the state of Texas because of previous stops at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, and the Mountaineers have been hitting the Lone Star State relatively hard as of late. West Virginia has offered lots of big names in the state but also has been looking for hidden gems. They found one in 2011 when RB Dustin Garrison received his only FBS offer from the Mountaineers and ended up starting as a freshman. WR Jordan Thompson had the same circumstances in the class of 2012. – Rivals.com
WR Jordan Thompson. Thompson was a lightly recruited 5-foot-8, 165-pound wide receiver from Katy (Texas) High who found his way to West Virginia after a breakout senior campaign. "Squirt," as he is called by teammates, enrolled in January and took full advantage of the opportunity, becoming one of the standouts of the spring; he drew rave reviews from fellow players and the coaching staff alike. A redshirt season remains a possibility, but if Thompson performs in summer camp as he did in the spring, it's more likely he will make an immediate impact on the field this fall. – Keenan Cummings, WVSports.com
For more on West Virginia throughout the season, check out WVSports.com
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