Pardon Our Dust
By John Antonik - WVUsports.com
Bright yellow construction tape is evident throughout West Virginia’s Milan Puskar Center where a new weight room is currently nearing completion. The sound of jackhammers and heavy machinery has provided the building’s inhabitants with a daily reminder of what is taking place downstairs.
The racket going on down below seems only appropriate for a Mountaineer football program that is undergoing quite a bit of remodeling this year. No longer around are West Virginia’s record setting troika of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. There is neither enough space nor enough time to list all of their school records, other than to simply proclaim that they possess just about all of them.
With those three gone, and four-year starting center Joey Madsen also off to the NFL, coach Dana Holgorsen is basically starting over on offense. He’s not sure who his starting quarterback is going to be, who his top playmakers are or how his young offensive line is going to react when the games start counting this fall.
“I’ve said this all spring – we’ve got a long ways to go,” the third-year coach pointed out following April’s Gold-Blue Spring Game.
Holgorsen is almost certain the guys on a retooled offensive coaching staff that includes newcomers Ron Crook, Lonnie Galloway and JaJuan Seider will not be working with the same depth chart when practice resumes in the fall.
“The team that we field in September is going to look a lot different,” Holgorsen admitted. “We have so many new guys coming in, and we have so many young guys that are going to continue to develop. (Spring football) is phase two and that is over. Phase three (development season) is incredibly important. A lot needs to happen in the next three-and-a-half months going into August camp.”
In late April, Holgorsen tipped his hand on where he thinks his quarterback situation stands by adding Florida State transfer Clint Trickett to the mix. Trickett, first round draft pick EJ Manuel’s backup the last two years, passed for 947 yards and seven touchdowns in 17 career games for the Seminoles. Now he joins junior Paul Millard and redshirt freshman Ford Childress in what is shaping up to be a real humdinger of a QB battle this fall.
Trickett, a junior, is immediately eligible to play, meaning he will need to spend the rest of the summer studying West Virginia’s playbook in monastic solitude. If he does, and he picks things up quickly when he gets on the field, Trickett could give the Mountaineer offense a big boost because both Millard and Childress were alarmingly inconsistent in the spring, sometimes throwing the ball to the guys in the right colored jerseys and other times throwing it to the guys wearing the wrong uniforms. Holgorsen made it clear after the spring game that it’s on both of them to get better on their own this summer in order to meet the high expectations he has for the quarterback position.
Holgorsen is also seeking improved play from the wide receiver corps, hinting after the spring game that his top playmakers might actually be arriving this summer among a group of newcomers that includes Mario Alford, Ronald Carswell, Shelton Gibson and Jacky Marcellus.
Alford, a 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound speedster from Georgia Military College, had an impressive list of offers after being named the No. 1 junior college prospect in Georgia in 2013. Alford has 10.7 100-meter speed and the ball skills to be an effective slot receiver. Carswell, a former Alabama signee, spent last season at Itawamba Community College where he caught 44 passes and was rated the nation’s 25th-best junior college wideout by one rating service.
Gibson, a 6-foot-1, 175-pounder from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was one of the nation’s premier prep receiver prospects picked to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Gibson’s offer list was long and impressive, choosing the Mountaineers over such potential suitors as Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Nebraska, Ohio State and Tennessee.
Marcellus, a 5-foot-8, 175-pounder from Immokalee, Fla., was a late signee who helped his high school team reach the 2012 Florida 5A state championship game. Marcellus was ranked the state’s No. 24-rated prospect by the Orlando Sentinel.
Those guys will add to a current group of pass catchers that includes promising junior college transfer Kevin White, sophomore KJ Myers, true freshman Daikiel Shorts, redshirt freshman Devonte Mathis, injured sophomore Dante Campbell, junior Connor Arlia, senior Ivan McCartney and spring-game sensation Jordan Thompson, who caught six passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns in the Gold-Blue game. However, Holgorsen wants to see much more of that from Thompson this fall before anointing him the second coming of Tavon Austin.
“He will go down in the history books as the greatest spring-game player of all-time,” Holgorsen joked. “Until he plays like that in a game, we’re going to call it like it is.”
Up front, West Virginia has just as many question marks, particularly since promising redshirt freshman guard Adam Pankey went down with a knee injury during the spring and will not be available until at least October, at the earliest. The Mountaineers are experienced on the outside with returning tackles Quinton Spain, Curtis Feigt and Nick Kindler, but new O-line coach Ron Crook is dealing with nothing but green on the inside with former JC transfer Mark Glowinski and sophomore Marquis Lucas at guards, and converted tackle Pat Eger now working at center. Redshirt freshman Tyler Orlosky and summer JC import Stone Underwood will also get close looks at the center spot this fall. Last spring, Holgorsen said he was just looking for someone who could get a shotgun snap back to his quarterback in the air.
“It was not good,” he said. “What do you expect? You are moving guys to center that have never played center but they have really improved.”
Holgorsen feels a lot better about his running back situation, where, for the first time really since arriving at WVU three years ago, he actually has some depth to utilize. Juniors Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie possess the most experience, but JC transfer Dreamius Smith brings impressive credentials to the table while prep standout Wendell Smallwood might be the Mountaineers’ best one-cut, north-south runner. All four have different skill sets.
“It is just nice to have four capable bodies,” Holgorsen said. “It is the first time since I have been here that we have four good and capable bodies.”
On the other side of the ball, most of the remodeling took place late last season when Holgorsen shook up his defensive staff by making Keith Patterson his sole defensive coordinator. Two assistants were also added to the defensive mix after the season in Arizona’s Tony Gibson and former East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell. Gibson has experience working with Patterson when the two were together at Pitt, and Mitchell has an extensive background coaching the 3-4, having worked with Bronco Mendenhall at BYU and also using the 3-4 scheme at ECU. Gibson is overseeing the safeties while Mitchell has the job of rebuilding a battle-weary cornerback position suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after enduring an unprecedented aerial bombardment last season. Mitchell recalled a similar reclamation job he once performed at Texas Tech several years ago.
“My first year at Texas Tech I had a senior that was a 4.7 kid, I had a junior that was coming off knee surgery and he was a 4.7 kid, and then I had nothing but freshmen after that and we finished second in the Big 12 in pass defense and maybe in the top 30 (nationally),” he said. “The next year we were No. 1 in pass defense.”
Naturally, all eyes (including opposing offensive coordinators) will be glued to a West Virginia secondary that gave up a depressing 38 touchdown passes last year. One area of strength – and perhaps the strongest area on the team – is at safety, however, where the Mountaineers have a budding star in sophomore Karl Joseph to go with rejuvenated senior Darwin Cook, the former Orange Bowl star taking to heart a midseason demotion last year by working hard in the weight room and getting himself into tip-top shape this spring.
“He’s not making excuses and he’s in better shape,” said Holgorsen of Cook. “He took offseason more seriously.”
The Mountaineers should also be pretty good up front with seniors Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell anchoring a group of run stoppers that also includes sophomores Christian Brown, Kyle Rose and Eric Kinsey. Redshirt freshman Noble Nwachukwu has also earned praise, and the defensive coaches can’t wait to get their hands on a lanky and athletic group of edge pass rushers, headlined by Arizona Western College’s d’Vante Henry, who turned down a late offer from Oklahoma to stick with the Mountaineers. Henry is the type of player Patterson says he wants to get in the program to combat the high-powered Big 12 offenses the Mountaineers are now facing on a weekly basis.
“I think we have helped ourselves a little bit with taller, rangy, athletic-type personnel,” Patterson said. “You have eight second-level players on defense and I think we really helped ourselves in recruiting. You never know until guys get on campus and they start playing to know how they are going to adapt to playing in the Big 12, though.”
Patterson, who is also in charge of the linebackers, is working directly with a unit that must continue to progress this fall. A much bigger Isaiah Bruce played well at times this spring at sam linebacker, converted safeties Wes Tonkery and Nick Kwiatkoski showed signs of being solid college players at the spur and will positions respectively, and senior Dozie Ezemma, a former New Haven transfer, has caught Patterson’s eye at buck linebacker. Veterans Doug Rigg and Jared Barber give the Mountaineers pretty decent depth at linebacker.
“I’m excited about what we’ve put together as a defensive package and now it’s just lay the broad foundation and refine it as we go,” said Patterson.
“There were a lot of reasons why we weren’t very good (last year) and if you go back and analyze all of them, the ones you can fix you fix and the ones you can’t fix you move on,” added second-year defensive line coach Erik Slaughter. “The bottom line is right now we know where we’ve got to improve and we’re going to do it. We’ve got a plan to do it, we’re excited about doing it and we’ve got guys that are returning, so that obviously helps as well.”
Just like his offensive mates, special teams coordinator Joe DeForest will also be working with new kickers, punters and return specialists this year, although redshirt freshman Josh Lambert showed during the spring that he possesses a strong leg and could be a weapon on field goals and kickoffs this fall.
At any rate, how effectively West Virginia can rebuild all three sides of the ball will determine how much success the Mountaineers have in a rebuilding Big 12 Conference in 2013.
Holgorsen, who has taken WVU to back-to-back bowl appearances in his first two seasons at the helm, expects to be picked near the bottom of the league standings when preseason selections are announced in July.
“Nobody thinks we’re any good,” he said. “I encourage our guys not to read anything online, on the message boards or any other publications. No one knows what our team is going to be like. The only people that can dictate that are the coaches and the players. We have to come in and just get better every day.”
The work resumes in August.