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West Virginia makes its move to the Big 12 with high expectations

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West Virginia makes its move to the Big 12 with high expectations
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Tavon Austin had a huge Orange Bowl against Clemson, but West Virginia needs more receivers to emerg …

West Virginia has undergone numerous changes in the past few seasons when it comes to coaches. Now comes an even bigger change.

WVU announced last fall it was leaving the Big East for the Big 12 and announced this winter that the move would take place in time for the coming season. Thus, after being a charter football-playing member of the Big East, the Mountaineers are heading west, where the football is better.

How much better will be interesting to find out. With 15 starters back from a 10-win team, WVU would've been prohibitive favorites in the Big East this fall. In the Big 12, look for the Mountaineers to be picked third or fourth in the preseason polls.

West Virginia at-a-glance
Coach: Dana Holgorsen (2nd season)
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-2 in Big East
Spring practice dates: March 11-April 21
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 (7): T/E Will Clarke, S Darwin Cook, SS Terence Garvin, CB Pat Miller, LB Doug Rigg, LB Jewone Snow, T Jorge Wright
Special teams (2): K Tyler Bitancurt, P Corey Smith

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.

In terms of offense, 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 last time WVU was on the field, it rolled up an all-time postseason-record 70 points on Clemson in the Orange Bowl. All of the key skill-position components are back, and QB Geno Smith and WR Tavon Austin should contend for all-league honors in their new conference.

The offensive line had some issues with the change in blocking schemes last season, and getting that group, which will have two new starters, more acclimated will be important this spring.

The storyline of change definitely carries over to the defense, which is jettisoning 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 some rebuilding to do along the line, where WVU has to become more physical.

The secondary also bears watching. Three starters return, but cornerback could be a trouble spot. One thing is for certain in this season of change: The secondary will be tested far more often in the Big 12 than it was in the Big East.

Keenan Cummings of WVSports.com – a Rivals.com website that covers West Virginia – provides a more in-depth look at spring practice.

The biggest problem: Defensive scheme change. The biggest problem heading into spring drills will be two-fold. WVU is transitioning to the 3-4 defense from the 3-3-5 attack that has been used in Morgantown for more than a decade. The scheme is expected to be much more aggressive and is predicated on forcing turnovers; it also will allow the coaching staff to adjust into a 4-3 look with the help of the extra linebacker on the field. This spring will be essential as the new coaches will give everyone a clean slate in an attempt to find the best players to fit the new scheme. The other major issue is finding a pass rush after the graduations of Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, who combined for 14.5 sacks, almost half of the 30 that the Mountaineers recorded last season. The primary candidate to come off the edge for the Mountaineers will be redshirt junior E Will Clarke, but it will be interesting to see if the staff utilizes more blitzes.

On the spot: CB Pat Miller. Miller started for the majority of the season before losing his starting job to Brodrick Jenkins; Miller then was moved to a nickel role. It was a role he played well, recording his only two interceptions of the season. Miller, a senior, opens the spring atop the depth chart, but he will have to fend off numerous challenges, including one from highly touted redshirt freshman Terrell Chestnut. Much like everyone on the defensive side, Miller will have the chance to start over with a new defensive staff, but he will have to earn it.

[Related: Reliving WVU's Orange Bowl win over Clemson]

On the verge: TB Andrew Buie and CB Terrell Chestnut. Buie battled injuries last season and lost his starting spot to fellow true freshman Dustin Garrison. Now, he will have a chance to gain some lost ground because Garrison will miss the spring recovering from knee surgery. Chestnut, a redshirt freshman, signed with West Virginia after being a longtime Pittsburgh commitment. He missed last season after shoulder surgery, but has drawn rave reviews from the staff. He has the size and skills to make an impact in the wide-open race at cornerback, but he will need to show he can stay healthy.

General overview: The spring will provide the new defensive coaches a chance to get a look at their personnel as WVU prepares for the move to the offense-minded Big 12. While Clarke and Jorge Wright return on the defensive line, it will be up to players such as J.B. Lageman, UCLA transfer Derrick Bryant and Shaq Rowell to help establish the unit. The Mountaineers also will be looking for help at wide receiver behind starters Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney. In a system that will utilize as many as eight wide receivers in the rotation, there will be passes to go around this spring and fall. And although not much is expected to change on offense, it will be interesting to see if there are any new wrinkles thrown into the mix and how much the group continues to develop under Holgorsen.

For in-depth coverage of West Virginia athletics, go to WVSports.com

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